(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, will face a host of pandemic-related challenges that have disproportionately affected the nation’s neediest students. In addition to learning setbacks, the prolonged isolation has caused social and emotional trauma.
The challenges will continue to mount once the Covid-19 crisis is over. Government resources will be strained at all levels, and continued Republican control of the Senate would likely limit extra funding available for K-12 education.
In the absence of significant support for state and local governments, beyond the money included in any year-end stimulus package, Cardona, who has been Connecticut’s education commissioner, will need to concentrate on closing funding inequities between poor and affluent school districts in order to avoid the kind of educational setbacks that followed the 2008 recession.
Although recent data indicate that the learning losses this fall, compared with the same period last year, have not been as dire as predicted, those results likely mask high numbers of missing kids — children who lack technology for online learning or whose parents are unable to supervise their remote schooling.
States and localities are responsible for the lion’s share of spending on public education; yet, as of 2015, only 11 states had funding formulas where high-poverty schools receive more funding per student than low-poverty schools, down from a high of 22 in 2008. When states cut back on their share of aid during the Great Recession, school funding came to rely increasingly on local property tax revenue, benefiting districts with high property values and hurting those where the values are low.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, an important first step the new administration can take to improve educational equity is to abandon the regimen of annual standardized tests that has dominated federal educational policy-making, especially under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Under the best circumstances, standardized tests do little to measure actual achievement, let alone improve it; indeed, the relentless focus on English and math in every grade from third through eighth has shortchanged the teaching of science at the elementary level as well as civics. Given the difficulty of administering tests during a pandemic, any results obtained next spring are likely to be more flawed than ever.
Eliminating or sharply curtailing standardized tests would save states as much as $1.7 billion and allow districts to reallocate resources. For perspective, that is over 4% of the $39 billion the federal government spends on K-12 education, based on 2018 figures.
Instead, districts could administer diagnostic tests developed by local educators that provide quick feedback for teachers. (The typically long lag time on standardized test results means teachers can’t easily tailor instruction to student needs.) Testing by the National Association of Educational Progress, which is considered the nation’s report card, provides “the ideal gauge” for measuring Covid-19’s impact on students and should not be canceled; NAEP provides state-by-state comparisons and takes demographic criteria like race, income and disability into account.
Cardona should also see to it that the Education Department rewrites the eligibility rules for supplemental federal funds that are meant for the poorest schools. These so-called Title 1 funds constitute the largest share of federal education spending.
One major flaw with the Title 1 formula is that under current rules, 20% of the money meant for poor students, or about $2.6 billion, ends up in districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families (partly because large, more affluent districts often have enough poor students to qualify for the aid). Changing the funding formulas could be politically difficult if it means taking money away from better-off districts — a problem that could be mitigated by stimulus funding now being debated in Congress.
The new stimulus bill approved by Congress calls for about $54 billion in funding for K-12 schools. The Biden Education Department should ensure that it isn’t zeroed out for other uses by the states, as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York did with $716.9 million in education benefits from federal stimulus aid last spring. Cuomo’s cuts shredded the part of the budget that provided extra funding to districts with comparatively low tax bases.
Instead, federal money should be used to reward states that promote funding equity, as well as local desegregation efforts — ideas Biden has endorsed. States that could benefit include California, which has a 10-year blueprint to expand early childhood programs and pre-K, and Arizona, where voters just approved a ballot measure to raise money for educator salaries by taxing the state's highest earners.
Working with other government agencies, like Health and Human Services, and rewriting Title 1 rules could help tap additional funding for community schools, turning them into hubs that provide counseling, basic medical services and food. A recent study found that providing such “wraparound services” in New York City schools, for example, increased attendance and graduation rates, as well as some test scores.
Similarly, by working with the Federal Communications Commission and advocating for changes in telecommunications tax policy, the Education Department could help improve the internet infrastructure in vast swaths of the country, urban and rural, where well over one-quarter of children live in households without web access. Poor internet service has proved an enormous educational liability during the pandemic. Government could raise $7 billion in additional revenue for improving broadband services if it reversed the prohibition on taxing existing internet services.
Finally, Cardona’s department can offer states matching grants to shore up community colleges, which receive far less per-pupil funding than four-year colleges, yet serve as a stepping stone to the middle class for low-income students. This will be especially important during a post-pandemic downturn when community colleges are likely to face large cuts and would provide a much more targeted boost for poor students than a broad program of forgiving college loans.
Just before the pandemic, at least a dozen states were still financing schools at well below pre-2008 levels; student test scores and graduation rates suffered as a result. The lessons from the 2008 recession, when high-poverty districts lost $1,500 in spending per pupil, three times the loss in affluent districts, suggest that unless both the Education Department and the states distribute money more equally, the damage to poor districts will be long-lasting.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."
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