Opinion – COVID-19 Makes Recession Different for Public Schools

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Budget cuts loom on the horizon, prompting public schools to prepare for the worst.  We can gain some insights on what schools can expect in this recession, by reflecting on what happened in the last one.  Keep in mind, however, that COVID-19 presents big differences putting even the most experienced school officials through the looking glass.

The Great Recession (2007-2009) brought massive teacher layoffs.  New teachers couldn’t find jobs.  Some abandoned education all together, while others lined up behind laid-off, veteran teachers to be day-to-day substitutes. A generation of college students decided against majoring in education, which dried up the supply of teachers entering the profession when the economy recovered.   The lean years for public schools lingered beyond the time when the record books said the Great Recession was officially over. It wasn’t until 2013 that California public school funding, in particular, started looking up.

What’s different now? COVID-19 has abruptly shut down the economy, causing a new brand of uncertainty.  We don’t know how the economy will re-open, but it is clear public schools will play an essential role.  Parents can’t get back to work if their children don’t get back to school. What’s not as clear is exactly how schools will reopen when it’s time.

Some point to Denmark for how schools can come back to some sort of normalcy with social distancing. For one, among other things, the Danes reduced class sizes.  But class-size reduction in California would increase costs at a time when the state can ill afford it.  There is, however, a strong argument to be made that because of the pandemic, in this recession, lawmakers should protect public school funding from cuts.   

Teachers are strategic players in the state’s economic recovery and public health response to COVID-19.  Districts and charter schools may be able to reduce the number of students in school buildings with staggered start times, year-round schedules and hybrid-online programs.  However, these social-distancing solutions will keep teachers to be in the classroom, not unemployment lines.

The financial stability public schools need to reopen safely this fall in light of COVID-19, could be on a collision course with the cuts to school budgets lawmakers typically make during a recession. It’s imperative for Sacramento to do things differently this time to guard against the teacher lay-offs that usually accompany budget cuts.

Certainly, in this moment, the most important thing is for schools to come back in a way that avoids the spread of the coronavirus.  In order to do that, schools need teachers along with very intentional planning with public health officials to be up to the task.

Editor’s note: Dr. Margaret Fortune is the president/CEO of Fortune School, a network of K-12 public charter schools that she founded to close the African American achievement gap in her hometown of Sacramento. Fortune has been an education adviser to two California governors.  She is secretary-treasurer of California State National Action Network, a national civil rights organization.

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