COVID’s Impact on School Budgets

It’s being felt in Knox County, as the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports:

Knox County Schools’ budget is expected to be down by $4.4 million for next school year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Around a third of the school district’s budget comes from sales tax revenue, which has dropped significantly because of COVID-19, said Ron McPherson, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer. In total, the district had to cut about $10 million in order to balance the budget, he said.

The projected budget for the 2021 fiscal year is $503.8 million, down from $506.7 million for the 2020 fiscal year, Superintendent Bob Thomas announced last week at a virtual community budget meeting. The school board will vote on the proposed budget on Wednesday.

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Coming Up: COVID-19 School Budget Cuts

Wilson County education advocate Kristi Dunn reports on a proposed budget for Wilson County Schools that includes some pretty steep cuts. Here’s her summary:

Yesterday was a work session for the Wilson County BOE ti discuss the upcoming budget. It was ugly and disappointing to the day the least. Our economy has taken a hit due to decrease in sales tax revenue, construction, tourism and property taxes. We have a $10.5 million deficit in the education budget to make up. The solution being proposed is to cut 41 high school teaching positions, 95 EAs, buy no textbooks, cut our Adult High School program which helps at least 145-150 students get their diploma a year, cut adult basic education program, cut all coaching stipend, mentoring stipends, all stipends for any band director, etc, no early retirement incentives.

The proposal comes just ahead of the return of the Tennessee General Assembly in June. At that time, legislators may decide to reinvest money previously allocated for Gov. Bill Lee’s now dead voucher scheme.

Additionally, a new report from Education Week indicates that districts across the country will face significant cuts due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Almost half of the nation’s 13,000 school districts may be forced to make the deepest cuts to education spending in a generation—slashing programs and laying off hundreds of thousands of administrators, teachers and other staff—to fend off financial collapse brought on by the coronavirus.

“What’s so stunning about this recession is that poor districts are going to bear the brunt of these cuts because they rely so heavily on state aid and they don’t have the capacity to raise their property taxes,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a law firm and advocacy organization which has sued states for having inequitable funding systems.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers handle school funding in the mini-session and going forward.

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Tennessee’s Constitution guarantees a free public education. Specifically, it states, “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Tenn. Const. art. XI, § 12. 

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center provides some insight into what constitutional guarantees to public education — like the one included in Tennessee’s Constitution — mean in the time of a global pandemic.

In the wake of closing physical school buildings and classrooms, states are legally mandated to educate all students while they are sheltering at home, regardless of student need or the conditions in the district in which they are enrolled. And this affirmative duty means that states cannot simply pass the buck to school districts to figure out how to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on their students and teachers, nor to shoulder on their own the responsibility for continuing instruction by remote, digital means.

To fulfill their Education Article duty during the COVID-19 school closure, the states, through their education agencies (SEAs), must take these minimum proactive steps:

  • Issue robust emergency guidance to school districts requiring the continuation of student learning through remote means and equitable opportunities for all students to access remote learning. The guidance must be comprehensive, addressing the full range of challenges faced by school districts, including addressing the specific legal rights and needs of students requiring interventions and supports, such as students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless students, students in foster care and those academically at-risk.
  • Provide intensive assistance to those districts serving high enrollments of low-income students and students of color to address the “digital divide” resource gaps that disproportionately affect these groups of students and impede delivery of remote instruction, including lack of internet access and devices and the need for online learning platforms, professional supports for teachers and other crucial assistance.
  • Collect data from districts on the extent of the “digital divide” with a focus on low-income students and students of color and make the data publicly available on a rolling basis.
  • Launch and implement a statewide campaign to make certain every student in need has access to meals and other supportive services while at home.
  • Issue guidance on district use of federal CARES Act emergency relief funds, prioritizing digital resource gaps and publicizing district plans for use of those funds.
  • Begin planning, through a statewide task force or work group, for appropriate supports to be in place when schools reopen, including the need for significant resources to compensate for student learning loss during school closure and support services for students experiencing trauma.
  • Ensure all public funds, including federal funds, are used exclusively to maintain and support the public education system and are not diverted to private virtual schools, tutoring services or other private education uses.

States are constitutionally obligated to make certain all children, no matter their life circumstances, have access to learning opportunities during the pandemic, and that students return to schools that are fully resourced and ready to meet their short- and long-term educational needs. Information on these resource needs will be crucial to inform the difficult budgetary decisions legislators and governors must make in the coming months, given the staggering fallout from the pandemic on state and local revenues.

The bottom line is this: states cannot close school buildings and then fail to educate children or permit and tolerate educational disparities among districts or vulnerable student populations. The constitutional obligation to provide public education belongs to the state, and only the state, and this responsibility cannot – and must not – be left to local district discretion, conditions or circumstances.

Privatizing Prowlers

Sciarra takes an opportunity here to caution against those who seek to profit from the pandemic by privatizing public schools. He notes that states should:

Ensure all public funds, including federal funds, are used exclusively to maintain and support the public education system and are not diverted to private virtual schools, tutoring services or other private education uses.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen our Tennessee profiteer friends at Pearson and K12, Inc. taking steps to use the COVID-19 crisis to grab even more taxpayer dollars with little accountability or oversight.

As the Tennessee General Assembly grapples with how to handle the inevitable budget challenges created by the current emergency, it’s important to remember Sciarra’s warning. The State of Tennessee MUST provide the resources necessary for a free public education for ALL students. This means directing necessary funds to local districts rather than simply relying on them to “make up the difference” between state funding and student needs.

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What We Always Knew

A story out of Maury County highlights the education disparities we all know about. It also makes clear the problem of inequality is societal and systemic. It’s something we can conveniently ignore when school is in session because we know then all the kids are being fed and watched and loved. We aren’t forced to see the impacts of wage stagnation, wealth consolidation, and a lack of access to health care.

Here’s more from the Columbia Daily Herald:

“It took this crisis to realize that we are working on two very different dynamics in our districts,” Jennifer Enk, president of the education association, told members of the Maury County Board of Education during an online board meeting this month. “Going forward, this is something that our state and our local [district] really has to look at.”

She said the ongoing stay-at-home order has shown that students’ access to the internet and the devices to access it dramatically differs across the county.

After encouraging the school district to continue offering stipends to local educators who prepare work packets for students, Enk recommends incoming funds from the federal government be used to “equal the playing field” for the county’s students.

Maury County Superintendent of Schools Chris Marczak previously told The Daily Herald that in the northern portion of the county, in the surrounding Spring Hill area, about 10% of the school district’s students live in a home without internet. In Columbia, the county seat located in the center of the region, 24% of the school districts students don’t have internet at home.

It’s not just internet access, of course. There are wide disparities in access housing, food, and health care. A report published last year noted:

High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.

The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.

They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

So, while policymakers create plans focused on how much time kids are in school buildings and how to ensure they get to take tests, the real problems remain ignored.

Meanwhile, privatizing predators are on the prowl, ready to use the COVID-19 pandemic to open the doors to MORE taxpayer resources with little oversight or accountability.

Instead of trying to line the pockets of wealthy edu-profiteers, Tennessee policymakers should move forward with solutions that address the underlying challenges:

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical bankruptcies. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Yes, COVID-19 has highlighted inequality in our schools and beyond. It’s also highlighted the willingness of our top policymakers to simply walk by on the other side while their neighbors suffer.

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Today, Gov. Bill Lee called on all Tennessee school districts to close for the remainder of this school year. Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on the issue:

“The coronavirus pandemic has already negatively impacted students, educators and communities, and will continue to do so for some time. Educators are as eager as parents for school to resume, but every decision on how and when to reopen classrooms must consider health, safety and well-being first.

Following Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement today, it is now time to look toward the 2020-2021 school year. The prolonged break in classroom instruction has disrupted student learning and will cause serious challenges for students and educators when school resumes. As the professionals who work with students most closely, Tennessee educators must have significant input in the planning and implementation of efforts to overcome learning loss.

There is no better place for Tennessee students than public schools, and every educator from the bus driver and cafeteria worker to the counselor and school nurse will be needed to support students. Use of federal emergency funds must first prioritize the ability to reopen public schools for the 2020-2021 school year.”

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McNairy County Schools becomes possibly the first school district in Tennessee to announce it is closing for the remainder of this school year, according to a story in the Jackson Sun.

The McNairy County School System won’t be returning to school for the rest of the semester and will be utilizing online instruction under the Tennessee Department of Education’s recently approved instructional plan.

The decisions come as districts around the state continue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

On Thursday, the McNairy County board of education accepted the Continuing Instructional Plan (CIP) at the recommendation of superintendent Greg Martin, who said the recommendation stemmed from the rural county’s inability to test for coronavirus.

Many districts have indicated they will be closed until May 4th as Gov. Bill Lee has recommended the state’s residents stay home when possible until the end of April. Reports indicate Lee will be making recommendations regarding schools at his daily COVID-19 briefing tomorrow (April 15th).

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The State Board of Education met yesterday to adopt emergency rules for schools in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Board noted there may be a need for additional changes, but for now, these changes address issues like grades and teacher evaluation. Here’s a great explainer from Knoxville-based online publication Compass.


  • School systems cannot require attendance or mark students truant for failure to participate in any remote learning activities they make available while schools are closed. Many school systems, including Knox County, are providing some level of instruction or review materials either online or via paper packets. Many teachers are also engaging students online via email or video conferencing. (Knox County’s resource page, consisting mostly of PDF worksheets, is here.)
  • High school seniors will receive grades for their classes no lower than what they were as of March 20 (This is true for ALL students). School systems have the option of providing extra work to allow seniors to raise those marks so that they can graduate with higher GPAs.
  • All year-end state testing is suspended, although school systems can choose to administer the tests if feasible.
  • Student performance data from this year won’t be used in teacher evaluations, but school systems can use information from classroom observations performed earlier in the year to make decisions about personnel placement and to provide professional feedback.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told the board that students may be nervous about having grades sufficient to qualify for the state’s HOPE lottery scholarship program, which requires a 3.0 GPA.

But he noted students can also qualify by scoring at least a 21 on the ACT college entrance exam or a 1060 on the SAT test. He also said the HOPE scholarships are not the only vehicle for post-secondary aid.

The article also referenced the controversy surrounding a survey sent by the Department of Education and subsequent revelations of a plan of action pushed by Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

The state survey caused some initial confusion, because the original version included questions that made it sound as if the state was considering adding instructional days during the summer in 2020 and/or 2021. But then those questions vanished, so that people who opened the survey Sunday saw different options than people who opened it when it was first sent out.

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Yeah, About That

So Jeb Bush’s school privatization group, Excel in Ed, is highlighting the Tennessee survey on the use of CARES Act funds. Trouble is, Jeb fails to mention that the survey has multiple versions and that the state’s Commissioner of Education accidentally revealed her desired outcome BEFORE the survey was finished.

Here’s the statement on Tennessee:

Tennessee officials have released a survey to gather public input on how the state should spend the funds received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to support the educational response work already underway and the future recovery efforts. Examples of eligible supports include better internet access and/or devices for students, addressing needs of special populations, professional development for effective distance learning strategies, online learning resources and mental health services. The deadline for completion is April 13. 

Maybe next time, Jeb should check with the folks on the ground before touting a plan he happens to like.

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TEA Statement on Emergency Rules for Schools

The Tennessee State Board of Education today adopted a set of emergency rules for schools in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The changes impact attendance requirements, grading, teacher licensure, and evaluation.

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on the changes:

“As educators and families continue to grapple with so much uncertainty, we appreciate the State Board of Education addressing some of the problems caused by school closures. The actions taken today are another step forward in ensuring students and educators are held harmless during this time.

TEA understands that this will not be the only round of emergency rules needed. As the Department of Education and local districts continue to get their arms around what public education looks like during an extended school closure, the state board will need to further adopt rules and approve waivers to allow for learning to continue in a way that prioritizes the health and well-being of Tennessee students and educators.

TEA is already hearing from members across the state with concerns about the impacts on tenure, differentiated pay and other issues affected by the suspension of evaluations and testing. The association will work closely with the department and the state board to ensure districts have access to the waivers needed to support teachers and students.”

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