New brief finds trends in education funding shifts due to COVID-19

2020 was in many ways a year like no other for K-12 education — except perhaps when it came to policymakers continued grappling with questions pertaining to the amount of funding allocated to schools, as well as whether the money was dispersed equitably and adequately.

In that sense, the 2020 legislative session was no different than years prior, according to a Feb. 16 Education Commission of The States policy snapshot — though the pandemic did drastically affect education spending.

At the start of 2020, many states had built up healthy rainy day funds and revenue collections had largely recovered from the Great Recession, enabling lawmakers to renew efforts to address inequities in their funding systems and update long-neglected school facilities. However, when many states began to solidify budget proposals in March, schools were closing and things were changing drastically, said Eric Syverson, policy researcher for the commission and author of the report.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying recession resulted in steep declines in state and local tax revenue. In response, Congress enacted the CARES Act in March 2020 to provide $16.2 billion to states to help pay for increased K-12 education costs attributable to the pandemic,” Syverson wrote. “Since its passage, most enacted K-12 funding legislation has involved one or more of the following policies: appropriating CARES Act funds, reducing state spending on K-12 education and transferring remaining education funds from fiscal year 2019–20 to fiscal year 2020–21. While appropriation bills reveal the dire budgetary situation in many states, focusing only on topline budgetary actions may gloss over other funding questions state policymakers continue to examine.”

The commission tracked 40 states that enacted 172 bills related to K-12 education funding, focusing on attendance and enrollment, revenue and equity-based funding initiatives.

  • As a result of the shift to distance learning throughout the country, some states were forced to adopt different methods of measuring and tracking student attendance and changes in enrollment. Most states require attendance counts to occur in person, typically twice per school year, once in the fall and the spring. Instead of changing the method of counting attendance to encompass remote or hybrid attendance, some states such as California held districts harmless, using attendance counts from the 2019–20 school year as the basis of 2020–21 school funding. Delaware lawmakers, for instance, simply enabled the department of education to move the date that annual attendance is counted.
  • Amid the ongoing recession, many states are facing significant declines in revenue, with some impacted more acutely because of their reliance on certain revenue sources such as local property tax rates and other economic factors. To help support local schools, Ohio policymakers passed emergency legislation requiring the state department of education to provide relief payments to districts that experience a 10 percent or more decrease in specified property values from fiscal year 2020–21.
  • After the passage of the CARES Act, Education Commission of the States tracked a marked increase in equity-based funding initiatives to help address and mitigate existing inequities in school funding. Thought it was vetoed, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 1835, which would have required districts to identify and expend unspent funds on English learners, students in the foster care system and students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In his veto message, Gov Gavin Newsom noted that he agreed with underlying goal of the bill and would address the issue in the January Budget Proposal.

In that proposal, the Governor includes statutory changes to address concerns that some LEAs allocate Local Control Funding Formula supplemental and concentration grant funds for increased and improved services and then leave them unspent, reallocating them for other purposes in future years. The statutory language in the January proposal requires that, once established, an LEA’s responsibility to increase and improve services continues until fulfilled, and increases the specificity required of county offices of education in their review of local educational agencies’ Local Control and Accountability Plans.

CSBA supports efforts to increase transparency and accountability around the budgeting and expenditure of supplemental and concentration grant funds. Unspent funds intended for English learners and foster, low-income and homeless students must be expended to increase and improve services for these student groups. The prescriptive trailer bill language, however, might crowd-out locally developed best practices that effectively track the use of these funds from one

budget to the next. CSBA is advocating that the administration and the Legislature consider greater flexibility for LEAs that have already developed or are working with local partners in developing a system that is consistent with statewide transparency standards for funding intended for the highest-needs students.