In a post at the Washington Post, Derek Black warns that investment in public education must not be denied in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and coming economic impacts.
During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Congress hoped that most of a $54 billion set-aside in stimulus funds would be enough to save public school budgets, which had been savaged by state and local governments. It wasn’t enough.
States imposed education cuts so steep that many school budgets still have not fully rebounded — and Congress’s 2020 stimulus bill aimed at trying to save the economy from a new calamity fails to address the possibility of a sequel. Meanwhile, even before the economic effects of the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic are being fully felt, states are already looking to cut education funding.
If states cut public education with the same reckless abandon this time as last, the harm will be untold. A teaching profession that has spent the last two years protesting shamefully low salaries may simply break. The number quitting the profession altogether will further skyrocket — and it’s not likely there will be anyone to take their place.
The first signs of this possibility are here. In recent weeks, three states — Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee — have cut teacher salary increases for this coming year — increases intended at this late date to begin repairing the damage from the last recession. Education Week reports that teachers may lose all of an anticipated pay hike in Kentucky, and legislatures in at least five other states have not acted on salary hikes for educators.
Black notes that Tennessee is among the states not learning the lesson of the Great Recession. It’s worth noting that Tennessee’s teachers already earn less in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did all the way back in 2009.
Between FY 2016 and FY 2020, lawmakers enacted a total of $429 million in recurring increases for teacher pay. Since that time, growth in Tennessee teachers’ average pay has begun to catch up with inflation. After adjusting for inflation, however, teachers’ average pay during the 2018-2019 school year was still about 4.4% lower than a decade earlier.
So, the response to the coronavirus by Gov. Bill Lee and the General Assembly was to cut a planned investment in teacher compensation and instead fund a voucher scheme.
When (if?) the General Assembly returns in June, it will be interesting to see if commitments are made about investments in public education going forward. Tennessee is already $1.7 billion behind where we should be in school funding.
Perhaps the crisis caused by coronavirus will give lawmakers time to actually conduct a comprehensive review of our school funding formula and make necessary adjustments and improvements.
Alternatively, as Black suggests, lawmakers may look to “save money” by moving to cheaper, less reliable online learning options while foregoing investment in teachers and the resources students need.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport