A group of lawmakers from the U.S. House and Senate finalized a massive appropriations bill Thursday that would pledge $71.5 billion in education funding for fiscal 2019. But as school districts wait for President Donald Trump to sign the bill into law, many struggle, especially in the face of a new school year, to fund the bare necessities.
It’s a bad time for school district finances. Public investments are declining across the U.S., and in many regions, school funding hasn’t yet recovered to pre-recession rates. There’s a greater need for technology, inter-district inequities remain, and several school shootings have prompted a need for more safety and mental health resources — both of which add to administrators’ trailing lists of priorities.
Enter H.R. 6157, which would increase funding for the U.S. Department of Education by $581 million. But in the end, while anything is appreciated, it ultimately isn't enough, said Suzanne Lacey, superintendent of Alabama’s Talladega County Schools.
“We go into every budget year with high hopes and expectations, but at the local level, we always end up having to be very resourceful,” she said. “This year won’t be any different.”
Here are some of the bill’s major components — and how school leaders say they’ll affect district finances.
Lacey said one item of the bill that caught her eye was safe schools funding. The bill allocates $95 million for school safety measures — significantly more than Trump's budget proposed $43 million — with up to $5 million for Project SERV grants that help school districts recover from violent or traumatic events like school shootings. Lacey’s reaction: There should be more money.
Talladega County Schools recently hired additional school resource officers for its 17-school district, Lacey said. Ideally, she’d like federal funding to help get one in every school.
“But this is what we can do right now,” she said.
No education funding in the bill is allocated specifically for schools hiring resource officers for their campuses. But a $1 million grant in the Health and Human Services budget can fund awards that use certain tools to promote school safety and individual health, like school counselors or SROs. The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that every school have at least one SRO, yet reports that only 20% of schools nationwide do.
Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa saw another missed opportunity in the bill: a lack of substantial infrastructure funding. Trump’s been a big advocate of improving infrastructure, and “with all the issues around school safety, it could’ve been a golden opportunity to hit a home run,” he said.
Title I and special education funding
John Carver, a former superintendent in Iowa and an incoming one in Tennessee, is experienced in leading rural school districts with low-income students. He supports Future Ready Schools, an initiative that maximizes students’ digital and personalized learning opportunities.
Core parts of the process — like getting kids digital devices, Internet access and effective teachers — are hard to get in rural areas, he said. This year, 100,000 classrooms across the country started with inadequately certified or inexperienced educators, and rural districts face a steeper battle than most.
“There’s almost like this undercurrent that people have lost faith in public schools,” Carver said. “We’re doing everything but getting a teacher in the classroom and helping to serve the kids in front of her.”
The bill allocates $15.9 billion in Title I funding, which aids local educational agencies and schools with large populations of low-income families. Title I isn’t needed solely in rural areas — it’s also crucial for urban schools, including those in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Jeffrey Dunn, director of its government relations office, wrote in an email that “we would prefer much more significant increases” to Title I.
“LA Unified receives Title I funds to 719 of its schools that cumulatively serve over 391,000 students,” he wrote. “It is increasingly apparent that much additional funding is needed to ensure districts, and schools can successfully meet all of the new federal requirements while also supporting students most in need.”
The bill also allocates $12.4 billion for Individuals With Disabilities Education Act grants to states — almost $87 million over fiscal 2018 funds. Special education programs and Title I are both underfunded within LAUSD, Dunn wrote, adding that “the [IDEA] (special ed) appropriation is especially inadequate.”
Hinojosa said one of Dallas ISD’s biggest issues is getting kids college and career ready. The district has Collegiate Academies and Pathways to Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) — which let high school students earn associate degrees, take college classes and learn technical skills — that are often in STEM-related fields.
Certain schools face a number of challenges in providing STEM education. Rural schools often have poorer Internet access and teacher retention issues, and schools with large numbers of low-income students need more resources to encourage these students to enter STEM fields. And for Dallas ISD's 230 schools and 157,000 students — almost 90% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged — that’s no small task.
So the bill’s $1.2 billion for Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, which aim to give students a well-rounded education by including subjects like STEM and computer science, doesn't have a huge impact, Hinojosa said.
“A lot of that federal funding is like seed money — it does provide innovation, and it incubates ideas,” Hinojosa said. “[But] you never know what you’re going to get, and you hate to stifle this momentum that we have right now. But all these things cost additional dollars.”
Charter schools and school choice have been hotly debated, but cities like New Orleans are paving the way for supporters. After Hurricane Katrina, the Recovery School District formed, taking underperforming schools out of the hands of the local Orleans Parish School Board and bringing them under the state’s wing.
The model proved to be a major success and became the first all-charter district in the country. Since then, several areas have expanded their charter school programs, and the bill would increase federal charter school grants by $40 million to reach $440 million in total fiscal 2019 funding.
“Federal funding is an important component to our funding structure for the Orleans Parish School Board and for many other urban public school systems across the country,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis wrote in an emailed statement. “And we always need more resources to make sure that all our kids have the opportunity that they deserve."
Assigning funds isn’t the one-stop solution
While the funding doesn’t hurt, it also doesn’t fix things, Carver said. For school districts to address their struggles, they must be able to decide for themselves where the money should go. Otherwise, he said, it’s just “gobbledygook” and a bunch of restrictions.
“From D.C., you can be a champion of change, and you can encourage change, but the change has to come locally,” he said. “The folks at the federal level are trying to facilitate change, but the local public schools — that’s where the control is and where it needs to be.”