Opinion: Stimulus for schools won’t solve it all

As a weary world struggles to celebrate this holiday season, the challenges for Kansas schools and the families they serve are monumental. Fortunately, two key COVID-related events bring hope: the promise of new vaccines to protect us from the virus and a stimulus package to ease the nation’s economic and social adversity.

We’ll learn more about vaccine distribution to educators and school workers in coming weeks. It’s also too early to know Kansas’ share of education funds in the stimulus bill sent to President Donald Trump this week. At this writing, the president is requesting that more funding be added before he signs the bill into law.

However, a look at what’s expected for K-12 education at the national level has been published by Future-Ed, a Georgetown University think tank, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The review summarizes the 5,593-page package and earmarked funds remaining from the first stimulus, the CARES Act.

While this may seem like a lot of taxpayer money, COVID-19 has devastated traditional schooling in Kansas; moreover, the stimulus is meant for pandemic control and disaster recovery. It’s not meant to replace state funding for education that covers school operational expenses and teacher salaries.

To illustrate how additional funding can fill gaps that state funding cannot address, let’s compare what the stimulus package offers with what Kansans have voiced online and what news media have reported as the greatest public education needs.

For example, early this year as more children were homebound, public recognition grew for the importance of full-time schools in learning and nurturing the social/emotional development of children that was coupled with an overall commitment to the importance of safety. There also was a strong public reaction to limiting school sports because it was obvious to many that sports, also music and the arts, help keep students focused on their schooling.

Perhaps what most surprised us was realizing that the Kansas economy is driven in large part by the function of our schools to care for children while their parents work. Families lose income, trade and industry suffer, and state tax revenue declines when schools shut down.

The proposed stimulus will bring $54.3 billion for K-12 schools nationally, about four times what schools received in March through the CARES Act. The new bill also includes $4 billion for governors to spend at their discretion.

Within the overall amount is $82 billion for colleges and schools for HVAC repair and replacement and other safety measures, along with funds for student support in high-need schools and more nutritional services. There is $7 billion to expand broadband access coupled with a separate item for building school technological capacity. The extant CARES Act offers funding for teachers to integrate remote and classroom teaching.

Hardships can bring greater understanding. The changes needed in our schools to help control the pandemic are also essential to recover from it and enable students to regain learning losses incurred during the pandemic.

The pandemic that continues to disrupt K-12 schools in every corner of our state will impact us for months, even years. As difficult as it is to accept, there’s no returning to school as it was in the past. By definition, stimulus means incentive, a jump-start. It will take full, comprehensive state funding plus a strong stimulus package to give Kansas students the high-quality education they deserve.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.

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