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A Looming Financial Meltdown For America's Schools


We begin this hour with a warning from school leaders across this country. The coronavirus outbreak is driving many public K-12 schools toward a financial meltdown. That's because schools get nearly half of their funding from states, and state tax revenues are plunging along with the economy. Recently, the head of Los Angeles schools warned that the harm children face from state budget cuts is just as real a threat to them as is the coronavirus.

NPR education correspondent Cory Turner has more on this and joins us now. Hi, Cory.


MARTIN: So walk us through what is happening right now.

TURNER: Most states have to balance their budgets, Rachel. And income and sales tax revenue, as you said, have been crashing. So governors and state lawmakers right now are basically racing to make cuts. We saw Georgia's governor ask educators to prepare for a 14% cut. A top Republican in Michigan's Senate warned schools there could see as much as a 25% cut. I spoke with several school funding experts, and they all painted a really dire picture. Here's Rebecca Sibilia. She studies school funding and runs an advocacy group called EdBuild.

REBECCA SIBILIA: I think we're about to see a school funding crisis unlike we have ever seen in modern history. We are looking at devastation that we could not have imagined a year ago.

MARTIN: That sounds horrible. So how does that compare then to, say, the Great Recession? I mean, schools took a big hit then, didn't they?

TURNER: They did. But, you know, for some comparison, if you look at April last month, school districts furloughed or laid off nearly half a million workers. That's more than lost their jobs through the entire Great Recession, in one month. Now, obviously, many of those are bus drivers and school staff who expect to get those jobs back. But if state budget cuts are bad enough, many may not. Another expert told me this coming year could be maybe twice as bad as the worst year of the Great Recession.

MARTIN: Wow. So what role is the U.S. government playing in all this?

TURNER: Honestly, everyone I spoke with said the only way out of this is for Congress to help schools the way they've tried to bail out businesses. A consortium representing teachers, principals and parents is asking for at least $175 billion. House Democrats recently wrote a bill that would send about a third of that - $60 billion - to schools, but top Republicans say that bill doesn't have a chance of passing the Senate.

MARTIN: What about the CARES Act, though, Cory? Wasn't there money in there for schools?

TURNER: There was, but experts say not nearly enough. It was about $13 billion for K-12. And spending the money has gotten kind of complicated because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued guidance late last month telling districts they need to spend a lot more of that money than they'd planned to on students in private schools.

MARTIN: Why? I mean, why spend that money on private schools? Does the law say that?

TURNER: Well, so the law seems to say that public schools should pay for services to help private school students, based on how many low-income kids those private schools serve. Now, that is not a controversial idea. In fact, it's a pretty old requirement in federal school funding. But DeVos is arguing that the aid should not be based on low-income kids but on all kids who attend private schools.

The group that represents state school superintendents actually wrote the secretary, saying this is not what Congress meant. In fact, the Republican chair of the Senate education committee said the same thing late last week - this is not what we meant. But I got a copy of a letter DeVos wrote back to these state school chiefs, and it basically says we're not backing down. Private schools are hurting. Some could close. They need help, too. DeVos wrote, I would encourage educators everywhere to be as concerned about those private school students and teachers as they are with those in public schools.

For now, though, this is just guidance. It is not binding. In fact, Indiana's Republican superintendent of public instruction tweeted, I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds. And she says she won't be following the guidance.

MARTIN: All right. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. We appreciate you, Cory. Thank you.

TURNER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.