In a House Education and Labor Committee hearing Monday, lawmakers predicted the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could widen racial funding gaps between wealthy and low-income public school districts. 

Reports cited by committee members suggest public schools already have a $23 billion racial funding gap between districts serving predominantly students of color compared to districts with a majority of white students. According to Education Trust, school districts with the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive approximately $1,800, or 13%, less per student in state and local funding than those with fewest students of color. 

“While wealthier districts can fall back on property tax revenue, low-income public school districts will have to continue to rely heavily on state funding,” Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) said. “For school districts that predominantly serve students of color, the severe cuts in education and supporting social service programs will come at a time of greatest need.” 

Now, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects states will face a $615 billion revenue shortfall over the next three years due to the pandemic. Scott said education funding makes up, on average, 40% of state budgets. Former Secretary of Education John King Jr. added during testimony in the hearing that districts get 90% or more of their funding from state and local dollars.

A 2011 U.S. Department of Education study confirmed state and local funds are inequitably distributed between schools that do and don’t receive Title I funds. A 2018 report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which also cited the department’s findings, found school funding inequities between high-poverty and low-poverty districts persisted. It added that in the past three decades, increasing wealth disparities and the concentration of poverty in certain areas have disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities.

“Low-income students and students of color are often relegated to low-quality school facilities that lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and technology support, critical facilities, and physical maintenance,” the report said. 

Many educators, advocates and lawmakers have suspected these trends will continue to be true in the wake of COVID-19 unless the federal government steps in with targeted funding. 

Vulnerable populations are most at-risk during cuts

States have already begun to cut their budgets after a pandemic-triggered recession — in some places, these cuts could reach 30%, King said. 

“One issue we worry about most is how cuts are made inside the district,” Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, told Education Dive in an email. Districts, she said, often decide layoffs based on seniority, and historically this method has impacted districts’ highest-poverty schools the most. 

Many states, Roza said, now use a funding target where local and state revenue are factored in to reach a target spending level for each district, with a higher target for a district with more students in poverty. If states choose to lower those targets, cuts will be made more equitably, she predicted. But if a state just cuts its funding portion, that would more likely hurt districts with lower property wealth.

The impact of the racial funding gap has already been made clear during closures. High-income districts were more likely than low-income districts to have the infrastructure in place to transition to remote learning. Now, Black and Hispanic students are expected to have fallen more behind when schools reopen. 

The safe reopening of schools and the economy is “especially” important for those from vulnerable socioeconomic backgrounds, Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity President Avik Roy said in Monday’s hearing, suggesting these populations are also going to be hit hardest by a recession.

“If you look historically,” Roy said, “anytime we’ve had a severe recession — whether it was the recession of the early 1980s or the recession of 2008 — minorities and low-income Americans were always the ones who were most harmed.”

Reopening schools will also likely be easier for wealthier districts with infrastructure in place to take health and safety precautions, as well as provide continuity during hybrid learning.

According to Rep. David Norcross (R-New Jersey), schools located particularly in areas with challenging budgets, like urban areas, are not getting direction in how to prepare for the coming school year. 

“We are in June, July, August — the construction period for schools — yet we are not seeing schools follow any standards,” Norcross said. “What’s going to happen if they don’t have their facilities set up for this COVID?” 

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office confirmed 41% of districts, or approximately 36,000 school buildings, have problems with their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. High-poverty schools, according to the report, are more likely to rely on state funds for building repairs.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement that “too often” schools serving primarily Black and Hispanic communities and in rural and urban areas face challenges “ranging from moldy ceiling tiles to inoperable heating and cooling systems.” 

An infrastructure package introduced Monday by Democrats in both the Senate and House, which includes the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act, would give $130 billion to high-poverty schools with unhealthy and unsafe facilities.

In the hearing, King proposed that future federal stabilization funding include a provision to ensure states and districts distribute funds equitably and see that vulnerable students are supported. 

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