We are now in the ninth week of our new education reality and all over the country local advocates are working with policymakers to tackle how to build more resilient school systems against the backdrop of enormous budget cuts.

The hard choices–epidemiological, budgetary and pedagogical–made by school leaders across the country over the next weeks will have cascading effects on student learning for the fall and beyond.

Last week we kicked off a new look at the advocacy campaigns underway in our states with a focus on how we can empower parents with real data and real choices and how we can forge a new educational compact with America’s students. This week we focus on cutting the red tape to help kids and families and asking for new help from the federal government but not waiting to make hard calls.

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Cut the Red Tape to Help Kids and Families

When school buildings closed in New Mexico, Amanda Aragon’s first thoughts were about the big barriers to getting meals to kids. “It’s a huge issue for everyone, but it’s especially critical in New Mexico,” she shared in our new video interview. “71% of our students are on free and reduced-price lunch, so that loss of access to food during the school day, both breakfast and lunch, has a monumental impact on our students.”

Traditional meal distribution programs were failing to reach a large number of families, so Aragon went to work pushing for something new: direct assistance through the newly created Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program announced on March 20 by the US Department of Agriculture. The result of Aragon’s advocacy was a big win for New Mexico’s low-income families: “Starting in the next couple of weeks, our families will be receiving direct funds to buy food for their kids, which limits the transition of transmission of Covid and … gives parents what they need to make sure that their children’s needs are met.”

As Nicole Rasul explains in CivilEats, the P-EBT program “could turn out to be a literal life-saver.” Right now, however, it is not available nationwide. According to Crystal Fitzsimons of the Food Research and Action Center only “18 states have been approved to provide benefits through P-EBT: Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wisconsin, Delaware, Oregon, West Virginia, and North Dakota. About 20 additional states have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service.” That still leaves far too many students and families without this vital lifeline more than two months into this crisis.

Next up for Aragon is a new round of policy goals to find better ways to meet the needs of families at a time when funding will become increasingly scarce: “Our statewide budget was built on an assumption of $50 per barrel of oil. That means that we are looking at a $2 billion budget shortfall for this next year, and if $2 billion doesn’t sound like a lot, in New Mexico, our entire budget is only $7.6 billion… we really want to protect those funds that are used at the classroom level and look at those sorts of expenditures that could be cut more from the administration or outside of the school level.”

  • The task this week is to ensure all states are taking advantage of new opportunities like P-EBT and to approach the coming budget crunch with a commitment to protecting kids by cutting out the red tape, bureaucracy and old-fashioned delivery systems.

Ask for Help, But Don’t Wait to Make Hard Calls

“Every day the can gets kicked down the road makes it harder to square budgets next year — and more likely that students will pay the price,” writes Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, in The 74 Million. “Careful cuts now can help cushion both teachers and students from more disruptive and deeper panic-induced cuts later.”

These won’t be easy calls to make. Plans to reopen schools in the fall in accordance with health guidelines may include classrooms with significantly smaller class sizes to maintain social distancing, increased investments in technology to ensure that all students can learn in a potential home-and-school hybrid model and the resources for staffing flexibility should teachers, staff or school leaders fall ill. Compounding these challenges is the fact that falling private school enrollment could send hundreds of thousands of students into the public school system come this fall, which could add $3 billion in additional costs to state and local budgets, according to Robert Enlow of EdChoice.

At the same time, as Susan Dynarski, professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, argues in The New York Times the academic needs of students will have grown enormously: “Most children will return to school without the skills and concepts they were meant to master this spring… Fourth grade can’t start in September with the usual curriculum if students missed half of third grade. They will need to compensate with more time spent on learning… States can’t possibly foot the bill for an effort on this scale. State tax revenue is plunging, and the states are generally barred from running deficits.”

While Dynarski argues for an educational “Marshall Plan” from the federal government to head off these cuts, Roza’s counter is that state and local inaction “today sets the stage for more turmoil next year.”

  • The task this week is to engage state and local officials on the steps that can be taken now to lower school costs, stem the flow of private school closures and prepare for a year of enormous financial challenges.

On May 4, we rolled out 51 new policy goals for every state and city campaign in the 50CAN network. Over the past week, our local leaders have been pushing forward in search of the policy wins that will ensure kids are learning in a school system that is resilient despite the harrowing budget situation and inherent difficulties in distance learning at scale.

This first week has been one of important strides forward. As Amanda Aragon shared above in our video interview, NewMexicoKidsCAN secured a key win for kids and families when the state was accepted into the pandemic EBT program. TEN Colorado continues to elevate policies identified by parents, including advocating for parent stipends for extending learning opportunities through the summer and advocating for recorded direct instruction as a critical equity lever. This week, Denver Public Schools committed to recommending recorded instruction be part of remote learning plans. In the Garden State, JerseyCAN took a key step forward in their advocacy efforts with executive director Patricia Morgan securing a spot on the Senate Education Recovery Task Force, giving her a prominent voice in shaping what schools will look like over the coming months and year.

HawaiiKidsCAN launched the “Spark and Inspire” initiative, developed in partnership with Teach For America, to highlight compelling local innovations in response to the educational disruptions. In Tennessee, the team has surveyed educators and parents on their concerns and opinions on stimulus spending, while in Georgia the team mobilized families to question the new superintendent candidate of Atlanta Public Schools. And in Miami, P.S. 305 hosted a teacher panel to surface the most innovative practices in distance learning.

  • The Aspen Institute has offered top policy recommendations for advocates and elected officials focused on supporting social and emotional learning in the pandemic era.

  • The National College Attainment Network has released an analysis showing that FAFSA renewal rates are down by 250,000 completions, foreshadowing a college enrollment portrait for the fall that will look very different from previous years.

  • The National Association of State Boards of Education issued a report on preparing school buildings for the return of students, including key information on safety and disinfectants.

  • EdChoice has released their May analysis of their public opinion polling in which they find parents giving higher marks to private and parochial schools than public schools in response to the crisis.

  • A number of important education groups have banded together to request $250 billion from Washington. EdWeek has the story.

  • ExcelInEd has run the numbers on the impact on public school districts should private schools shutter from lack of finances. Their conclusion: it “could be disastrous.”

  • Rick Hess and John Bailey, writing for Education Next, present “A Blueprint for Back to School,” a report co-authored by numerous friends across the sector.

  • EdWeek has a helpful explainer of the Covid-19 grants for parents and states coming from the federal Department of Education.

  • CRPE’s Robin Lake testified before the House Education and Labor Committee.

  • Writing for The Grade, Alexander Russo is asking education journalists to obtain updates from districts across the country on the attendance and effectiveness of their distance learning plans.

  • Jeb Bush, Steve Case, and Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard spoke to Axios regarding the post-pandemic future of schools. A common theme: concern over the learning loss for low-income students.

Towns like Deming, New Mexico, on the US-Mexico border, are facing a unique set of challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. The district includes many students who are United States citizens but live at homes across the border in Paloma, Mexico, making solutions to get food to children all the more difficult. Humanitarian Esperanza Lopez, photographed here, has partnered with the Deming Public Schools in an innovative collaboration to ensure that all of Deming’s students receive the proper nutrition.

Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.


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