• GUEST OPINION

      a man with glasses over image of a building with grass

      Patrick Cahalan (PUSD Photo – Staff)

      Public education has been heavily impacted by the pandemic in the last nine months, but the wildly varying levels of community spread across the nation and internationally have resulted in great disparities in the responses of local officials in charge of education.

      By Patrick Cahalan

      There is one upside to these disparities:  international experiments in educational models and support strategies have given educators some data on what health measures are likely to produce the best results, and which ones are less effective.

      It is difficult to summarize in a single article the impacts on our local school district because they have been changing with such rapidity.  The Governor’s initial budget proposal last May was potentially devastating to public education, but the Legislature took steps to postpone structural cuts, albeit not without affecting district cash flow.  This represented the first time since the passing of Proposition 98 in 1993 that the California budget earmarked more funding for education than was required by that law.

      At the federal level, over the summer there was some debate about whether the Republican-held Senate would agree with the House and pass supplemental budget aid for states and local governance bodies.  That effort went politically downhill as the election approached, then rebounded as the Senate and the House agreed to include some level of aid in the general federal budget bill.  That bill went to the President’s desk, was held up for several days, and was ultimately signed on December 27. The fiscal impacts to our local district are still being unpacked by analysts, but preliminary estimates are very promising.

      Meanwhile, at the very end of December, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan calling upon the Legislature to immediately fund $2 billion in supplemental aid to school districts prior to the initial January budget.  This is a significant sum, but a weighted funding stream across the entire student population winds up providing approximately $450/student on average to school districts in California.  This funding is not the only assistance proposed in the Governor’s plan. Testing, PPE, and contact tracing services will be provided to some extent, as well as prioritizing school staff for vaccinations in Spring of 2021.  If the Legislature heeds the Governor’s call and authorizes the spending, the details of what will be provided and how that will change budget priorities will require some work.

      Additional wrinkles that impact education funding include the Governor’s initial budget proposal and possible new federal initiatives.  The Governor’s initial budget proposal is expected to be announced in less than two weeks.  It will which sets the table for negotiations between the Governor’s office and the Legislature for the general budget.  Federal initiatives may be forthcoming with the new Administration.  President-Elect Biden campaigned on full funding of IDEA, which would be an enormous lift for public education nationwide, but it remains to be seen what priority that effort will be given in the upcoming year.

      At both the federal and state level, it is clear there is a political desire to encourage public school districts to open, at least partially, for in-person instruction.  The research is unambiguous on this front: school children respond best to in-person instruction, and the impacts of distance learning are most significantly felt among the most disadvantaged students.  National and state priorities match PUSD’s planned opening ideas: prioritizing special education, English learners, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students including foster and homeless youth, with a focus on opening general education to the lowest grades (TK-3) first.  PUSD will certainly move forward with those efforts as health conditions permit.

      The current circumstances are exceptionally worrisome in Los Angeles County, so it is unlikely that the Governor will lift stay-at-home orders until mid-January at the earliest, and the likelihood of County health officials green-lighting a return to school before February is minimal.  PUSD staff and the PUSD Board will continue to follow County and State updates to ensure that we are ready to move quickly to get our kids back into the classroom when the District can reopen.

       

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