This commentary is written in collaboration with The Education Trust and was originally published by Next100, a startup think tank powered by The Century Foundation and created for—and by—the next generation of policy leaders.

The COVID-19 crisis is upending every aspect of our nation’s K–12 education system. While no one knows for certain what returning to school will look like in the fall, the decisions we make today—none of which will be ideal—will affect the life trajectories of a generation of students. The COVID-19 pandemic has already wreaked havoc on Black, Latinx, and low-income communities. We can’t let our response to the virus do the same to our nation’s Black, Latinx, and low-income schoolchildren.

And yet thus far, that is exactly what is happening. Study after study show that our national virtual learning experiment this spring has widened equity gaps and left the most vulnerable students—students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness—falling further behind. And with another school year amidst a pandemic creeping up, and tough decisions for superintendents to make to balance students’, families’, and educators’ health and safety with students’ opportunity to learn, these gaps are likely to widen. These are not decisions that can be easily made: There is no clear “right” answer.

Study after study show that our national virtual learning experiment this spring has widened equity gaps and left the most vulnerable students falling further behind.

But another challenge schools will face does have a right answer—or at least a clearly better answer for vulnerable students. Schools will face massive funding cuts in the upcoming year, due a fiscal crisis that is, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has put it, “unlike anything states have faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.” In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, projected cuts have been described as “at the bone.” And these are just the cuts: this doesn’t begin to address the substantial additional costs schools will incur as a result of the pandemic, such as implementing substantial new health and safety measures to protect students and educators; providing hardware and connectivity for distance learning; providing additional time for learning, including intensive tutoring; and offering additional meals. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are currently quite literally asking schools to do more with less.

And what’s worse, in many states, these cuts will exacerbate existing deep inequities in K–12 funding. Pre-pandemic, the United States spent $1,800 per student fewer in districts serving high concentrations of students of color, driven in part by vast differences in property wealth stemming from decades of discriminatory lending and zoning practices. To counter this, state funding streams typically send more education dollars to higher-need, less-wealthy districts. This means that ostensibly “equal” cuts in state funding—15 percent across the board, for example—will have an outsized impact on those districts that rely more heavily on state dollars.

During the Great Recession, states cut nearly $24 billion in just one year, and those cuts disproportionately hit low-income communities. As a result, the funding gap between low-poverty and high-poverty districts more than tripled, and the downturn created an “unprecedented decline in public school funding fairness.” While Congress appropriated additional funds for schools through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, those dollars were not sufficiently targeted to make up for the widening gap between schools that serve students from low- and high-income backgrounds.

These budget cuts had real, human costs: massive teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and reduced course offerings for students, among others. Nearly 300,000 educators lost their jobs, the majority of which were in high-poverty districts. Black and Latinx students were significantly more likely to have a teacher laid off than their white peers. Unchecked, this pattern will repeat itself: Layoffs are likely to hit Black and Latinx teachers hardest, since teachers of color are over-represented among early-career teachers, who are among the first to go when budget cuts come down the line.

Ensuring Maintenance of Equity

The authors’ experiences in the Obama administration, which worked on efforts to recover from the K–12 funding reductions brought on by the last recession, showed us that while looming state and local budget cuts are inevitable, policymakers at all levels have significant control over how and where those cuts are made. Congress, in particular, is well positioned to ensure that high-poverty schools and districts don’t again bear the brunt of belt-tightening.

Congress, in particular, is well positioned to ensure that high-poverty schools and districts don’t again bear the brunt of belt-tightening. And the best tool at their disposal? Apply a “maintenance of equity” provision in future education stabilization and relief efforts.

And the best tool at their disposal? Congress must act quickly to appropriate substantial additional funds to schools that actually meet the scope of the challenge, and include, and apply a “maintenance of equity” provision in these future education stabilization and relief efforts. Such a provision would require states and school districts to allocate their own dollars—which represent the vast majority of education funding, more than 90 percent in a typical year—wisely and equitably if they want to receive federal stabilization funds.

Specifically, Congress should require the following:

  • States that accept federal funds are prohibited from cutting per-pupil funding to high-poverty districts at a higher rate than low-poverty districts. Where state funding formulas are progressive, across-the-board percentage cuts will automatically have this regressive effect; those states would be required to choose an alternative approach that shields high-poverty districts.
  • School districts that accept federal funds must protect their highest-need schools from disproportionate layoffs and hiring freezes. We cannot (once again) allow a recession to mean that schools that are already at a disadvantage are left with the lion’s share of educator and staff reductions and unfilled teaching posts.
  • States and districts that accept federal funds must publicly report on the impact of resource cuts. Specifically, they must report the number and percentage of educator and other school staff jobs that are either eliminated or left unfilled: (1) overall; (2) in the schools serving the greatest concentrations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds; and (3) by educator and staff race and ethnicity.

To date, much of the focus in Congress on how best to help K–12 education during the current crisis has centered on efforts to increase federal funding to backfill state and local revenue gaps, including an additional $13 billion for schools in the CARES Act and another $58 billion proposed in the HEROES Act. Most recently, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)’s Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act proposes another $175 billion for schools, an investment that is closer to what is actually—and direly—needed. All of these bills include a “maintenance of effort” provision that ties new federal dollars to a requirement that states maintain funding for K–12 and higher education overall, or as a percentage of their state budgets. A “maintenance of equity” provision fits well into that framework and would work similarly.

Continuing a Civil Rights Legacy

There has been a healthy debate in recent decades about the proper size and role of the federal government in K–12 education. But we can all agree that a crisis should not be an excuse to double down on an injustice. The federal government has always been a critical defender of civil rights for the most vulnerable students. That role is all the more important today, amid a pandemic that is ravaging low-income communities and communities of color the hardest.

A crisis should not be an excuse to double down on an injustice.

States will soon have to make tough decisions about the upcoming school year and the years to come. The federal government has the power to influence those decisions, and protect students of color and students from low-income backgrounds from shouldering an unfair share of budget cuts.

header image:A teacher puts final items into paper bags with the personal belongings of students waiting for parents to come and pick them up in Provo, Utah. Source: George Frey/Getty Images