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Coronavirus Aid Might Not Prevent Cuts to School Funding, Analysis Shows
This image from video shows the Senate's final passage of the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Senate Television via AP

Even with $13.5 billion in coronavirus relief aid provided to schools by Congress last month, an across-the-board 8 percent cut to states' school funding would lead to a decline in per-pupil spending in all 50 states, a new analysis shows.

In addition, the analysis by Michael Griffith, a veteran school finance consultant, finds that the K-12 relief package signed by President Donald Trump on March 27 as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act amounts to less than 2 percent of all spending on public schools.

As a souring economy eats into states' resources this year, the emergency airlift of federal money could help mitigate the damage to the nation as a whole and states in particular.

Yet already, states are seeing their economies start to slide and are slashing their spending. For example, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, has already ordered the state education department and other agencies to shave 1 percent off their budgets. And last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said the state could have a $15 billion shortfall in tax revenue. And the education community has put Congress and the White House on notice that the current round of federal aid won't be enough to keep school budgets from a sharp decline.

Some observers already anxiously foresee a round of cuts similar to the impact on school budgets triggered by the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, which some evidence indicates hurt students' performance and their odds of going to college, particularly for students of color. The extent to which per-pupil spending has rebounded since the Great Recession varies significantly between states.

The CARES Act, signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, includes billions earmarked for public schools. There's a $13.5 billion pot for school districts, which will go out to districts under an existing federal formula focused on disadvantaged students, and a $3 billion fund for governors to distribute to both K-12 and higher education.

Using figures from the Congressional Research Service, Griffith's analysis looks at not just how much each state would get from the CARES Act, but how much would reach K-12 districts according to the federal formula. He also looks at how the aid would or would not offset anticipated state funding cuts.

Some important caveats about this analysis:

  • Griffith's results assume that 90 percent of the $13.5 billion pot specifically for school districts ends up going to districts. The CARES Act says that at least 90 percent of that money must end up with districts, so the amount that actually reaches districts could be higher.
  • In addition, his analysis assumes that half the money in the governor's fund will end up with K-12 schools, meaning the other half would go to colleges and universities. Statistically that's an equal distribution, but of course, the share that goes to K-12 versus higher education in each state will vary depending on needs, politics, and other factors.
  • Each state, of course, will take its own approach in deciding whether to cut its education budget in response to the pandemic's impact, and if so, by how much.
  • For the 2019-20 state and local funding statistics, Griffith relied on an estimate from the National Association of State Budget Officers. He also assumed a 3.6 percent increase in state and local K-12 spending above 2018-19 per-student spending figures compiled by the National Education Association.

Under his analysis, a universal 7 percent cut in state aid would leave three states (Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Dakota) spending more per pupil when CARES Act aid is accounted for. But if all 50 states cut their education funding by 8 percent, all of them would end up spending less per pupil, even after factoring in the CARES Act money.

How much states spend per pupil-separate from federal and local spending-can vary significantly, so the impact of percentage cuts to that spending differs accordingly.

In general, though, "the number that's in your state budget now is not going to be the number that will be there" for schools when states start planning their next budgets this fall, said Griffith, who used to study K-12 finance at the Education Commission of the States.

There has been tension about how schools should be approaching the next several months as the majority of students have shifted to online learning at home (if their schools haven't shut down altogether).

Some have focused on the urgent need to expand internet access and provide more online devices to students as the academic year enters the home stretch. But others say schools should save what money they have in reserve to help them weather the economic hard times ahead.

Partisan control of states will also play a factor in states' decisions about things like school funding. In 2010, for example, Democrats controlled 27 state legislatures compared to 14 for Republicans; this year, Republicans control 29 state legislatures compared to 19 run by Democrats.

"We'll have a better understanding in three months," Griffith said. "But that seems like an eternity from now."