Coronavirus Is A Risk To Education In America: A Comprehensive National Response Is Needed

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to RewardHe formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

The economic effects of the coronavirus are presenting increasingly difficult challenges for the nation. In the month of April, nearly 30 million Americans moved onto the unemployment rolls and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dipped by nearly five percent. All projections from labor economists indicate that these numbers will continue to go in the wrong direction during the months ahead. The U.S. economy is in its most serious decline since the Great Depression. From a policy perspective, our nation needs to place a high priority on making our nation healthy again, but it also needs to protect workers, small businesses and our economic future. Most economic news reports focus on U.S. industries that are likely to suffer the most, such as as the retail industry, restaurants, small businesses, airlines and the entertainment industry. While each of these sectors are indeed experiencing serious problems, and deserve intervention and support, an industry that is likely to suffer severe, long-term damage is often overlooked—that is, public education and specifically our nation's public schools and public colleges. They face a very difficult future and need our attention and our assistance.

Why is education in America at risk? An interruption in schooling across all grade levels will likely result in a serious decline in student achievement, especially for those students who are the most disadvantaged. This is likely to result in increased drop out rates, a spike in special education, a decline in high school graduation rates, a decrease in college enrollment, lower college readiness rates and declining college completion rates. A large increase in mental health and social service needs should also be expected, which will have a negative impact on student learning and achievement. With increased need and declining resources, our schools, universities and teachers will be faced with a daunting challenge. The long term effect on students and on the nation could be devastating.

In addition, our schools must plan for a safe reopening, which will of necessity require added cost. They will need to make sure that social distancing is incorporated into any reopening plan, that facilitates are regularly cleaned and sanitized, that staff and students are regularly tested, and that their communities do whatever they can to make sure that all are safe and in good health. 

Ironically, this is all taking place at a period of time when America's understanding and appreciation of the important role played by educators is on the rise. Parents across the United States, who have been charged with home schooling their children, now have an increased understanding of how vitally important schools and especially teachers are to their children’s future. And, as schools remain closed, this appreciation is clearly on the rise. It is no surprise that many have begun to refer to teachers as "first responders."

School closures have also put an added focus on online learning and technological access. Sadly this has made issues of inequality even more obvious. Reliance on technology-based learning has revealed the number of students who, in both urban and rural areas, lack internet access and/or any or enough devices to access online learning opportunities. Both deficits serve as major barriers to online learning. 

When schools closed in New York City, for example, over 300,000 students were found to lack devices or internet access, preventing children's learning needs from being addressed. But the quality of the online learning being offered also presents a challenge. While technology is increasingly important and online content and tools should be part of students’ learning experience, it is increasingly clear that technology, in and of itself, is only a tool that can supplement, not supplant effective in-person teaching and learning. Whenever our schools reopen, all instructional and administrative staff will face the daunting challenge of keeping students and staff safe, while addressing the educational needs of our children, some of whom have likely fallen far behind in their studies. This will require a solid level of added financial support.

Where will that support come from? There are three logical sources. First is federal assistance. As America and our federal officials focus on the obvious industries that are threatened by coronavirus, the public education sector needs to be much higher on their list. Second is the opportunity to use low interest rates to finance ways for states and localities to augment that federal funding support. And third, states, districts, schools and colleges need to augment their resources by enhancing efficiencies through innovative measures and reallocate any savings into direct student financial support.

Let's start with an expansion of federal support for our schools and colleges. Federal assistance, while vitally important, does not constitute the most significant portion of our public school and public higher education budgets. Far from it. Education in America largely survives on state and local resources, providing nearly nine out of ten dollars of support for our schools. Higher education institutions, especially publicly funded community colleges, are also largely supported by state and local funding. This must change. In light of the fact that local and state revenues are rapidly declining, the pressure for massive budget reductions will heighten. We can't allow our schools and colleges to compete with one another for limited resources and be targeted for massive budget cuts. This truly would be a zero sum game. To address this crises, I think that we need to identify at least $500 billion in added federal assistance for our nations public schools and colleges. And this support should not be restricted to one year. If there is no federal action, the long-term effects could be horrific.  

Are there any lessons in our nation's history that show us how serious budgetary gaps can effect schooling? Yes there are. In the 1970s, New York City faced bankruptcy. In response, the city laid off thousands of teachers. Virtually every school lost all of its school guidance counselors, librarians, art and music teachers, physical education teachers, school aides and other support staff. Class sizes went up markedly and the school week was cut from five days to four and a half days. Because seniority was governed by license area, some students saw a revolving door of teachers through the year as one laid off teacher "bumped" another teacher. Though after the headline "[President] Ford to New York City: Drop Dead," some modest federal assistance was granted, it was too little and too late. The damage to students and their learning was felt for over a decade, with the cost assumed by all. We can't let this happen again.  

Second, states and localities can act to spread the added costs of responding to the increased educational needs of students, schools and colleges by financing the added funding needs over multiple years. With the current, incredibly low interest rates, states and localities have an opportunity to take advantage of long-term financing opportunities that will protect against cuts and add the necessary resources to assist schools and colleges in addressing student needs. With support from the investor community, especially socially responsible investors and public pension funds, this type of financing strategy could yield hundreds of billions in additional support to respond to the crises faced by our schools and colleges.

And third and last, our schools and colleges have an opportunity to innovate and reduce their administrative overheads, reallocating the resulting funding to direct student services. For example, states could consolidate administrative costs for all of their school districts. It makes no sense for every school district to purchase its own supplies, route its own buses and finance its own data system. Public school budgets alone amount to $600 billion, and while nine out of every ten dollars goes for instructional costs, the remaining $60 billion is spent on administrative and operational costs. By consolidating these expenditures at the state level, significant savings could be realized.

Federal assistance, coupled with local and state help via financing and administrative cost reduction, would help yield the needed resources to address the educational challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

How should such funding be spent? All of it should be spent to address the learning needs of students. Once schools reopen, we need to expand and extend the school day and year, providing more time for students to catch up on essential subjects such as math and science, but also for art and music and social and emotional learning. We also need to hire more teachers, increase compensation and significantly expand high-quality professional development. Long-term intelligent and innovative investments can limit the costs of remediation and increase student achievement. All of this will produce a return on investment. Higher achievement levels leading to increased college graduation rates will yield increased tax revenue as the economy ultimately recovers. Education stability and growth in student achievement levels are directly connected to long-term economic growth. 

We cannot be economically competitive without being educationally competitive. It is time to give our students all across the nation our full support. We can't wait. We must act and act now.

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