What the Federal Government Can Do to Address the Unprecedented Education Crisis Caused by Coronavirus

By Bi Vuong and Farhana Hossain
March 2, 2020

More than 50 million children and young adults have been affected by nationwide school building closures aimed at slowing the transmission of coronavirus. Students are facing the prospect of losing anywhere from weeks to months of schooling, and some states have warned that classrooms could remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year. This is an unprecedented crisis for our education system, which will be heightened further by the looming economic downturn. Unless immediate steps are taken to support our public schools, the disruptions to the education system caused by the pandemic will have long-lasting consequences for our students and society.

What can we expect?

  • Most students will inevitably suffer some learning loss but disadvantaged and vulnerable groups will likely fall further behind, increasing the achievement gap.
    • During an undisrupted school year, where students receive additional support in school and out of school, an achievement gap still persists. Since these supports  — such as afterschool programming, tutoring, college counseling and mentoring — are unlikely to be provided for our most disadvantaged and vulnerable students during this time,  it is reasonable to expect that the gap will widen.
    • Many school systems are switching to remote learning but face barriers to getting services to students quickly and equitably, primarily due to unequal access to computers and internet at home
    • Districts are also struggling to provide services to students with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups – like homeless and foster students — who rely on additional school-based supports.
  • School systems will need significant financial support to meet the short-term and long-term challenges caused by the pandemic.
    • School systems will need financial support to address the immediate needs posed by this crisis, which includes bolstering the infrastructure for remote learning and providing equitable access to families,  planning for large-scale summer schools to help students catch up for lost time, or providing additional support this upcoming fall for students who have fallen behind while continuing to offer advanced learning opportunities. Without additional funding, districts will have to make choices that have long-term consequences; for example, increasing the number of remediation classes for high school students may result in fewer advanced placement or dual enrollment classes.
    • Economic experts are predicting that the coronavirus will cause a recession more severe than the Great Recession (2007-2009), which had significant negative effects on student learning and the effects were disproportionately felt by more economically disadvantaged school districts that rely on state aid. On average, state and local governments provide over 90 percent of the funding for elementary and secondary education in the United States. As income and sales tax revenues decline for states, school systems will see large drops in state K-12 funding and will not have the revenues to mitigate the aftereffects of the pandemic.  

What can the federal government do?

Provide an immediate, large-scale stimulus for education, with additional assistance for states to stabilize their education funds for at least 5 years.

During the Great Recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided nearly $100 billion for education — about half of which was delivered to states to stabilize education funding and about a quarter of which went to school districts through major formula programs. By all accounts, the disruptions posed by the pandemic are more severe, and school systems will need an immediate large-scale stimulus to get students back to learning as quickly as possible. Policymakers should ensure that federal assistance continues at some level beyond the initial stimulus to provide state budgets time to recover and rebuild their education funding base. The government can increase federal education dollars in annual appropriations to mitigate and backstop state budget shortfalls, ramping down over a five-year period to allow states and districts to adjust to their own resources. Districts faced steep funding cliffs at the termination of two-year ARRA funds due to prolonged fiscal difficulties after the Great Recession. While ARRA emphasized investment of funds in ways that “do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires,” many districts used the funds to save or create jobs for teachers and other school personnel and cut jobs when faced with the funding cliff. States and districts will need support in upcoming years to account for the decline in revenues, along with additional guidance and flexibility in creating sustainable improvement efforts. Policymakers can use federal, state, and local evidence to direct and strengthen federal funding over time.

Use the lessons from ARRA to structure implementation of federal assistance.
  • Use existing funding formulas to push out money to states as quickly as possible while allowing room for innovation and improvement. As with ARRA, the federal government can use Title grants to efficiently distribute stimulus funding to states. In doing so, the government should ensure that interpretation of existing federal guidance under these grants do not limit or inadvertently fragment improvement efforts. States should receive support on how to interpret existing guidance to allow maximum flexibility to districts to promote innovation and improvement, rather than focusing on strict compliance.   
  • Monitor the effects of the economic downturn to ensure distribution of federal assistance to districts that need most support. Some places in the country were hit much harder than others during the Great Recession, and the pace of recovery also varied greatly across geographies. A recent analysis found that adverse achievement effects of the Great Recession were concentrated among low-income school districts and concluded that the “distribution of ARRA aid to states and districts did not align with how the impact of the recession on student achievement was distributed across school districts.” The analysis suggests a need to consider the differential effects of an economic downturn on local communities and schools when allocating funds in upcoming years.  
  • Increase capacity of State Educational Agencies (SEA) and Local Educational Agencies (LEA) to support schools. SEAs are directly responsible for the administration and oversight of federal funds, and together with LEAs, they allocate resources and support implementation of improvement efforts. A 2012 study from the Center on Education Policy found that staffing and funding shortages hampered the ability of SEAs to support states with ARRA-related reforms and to improve K-12 education in general. SEAs and LEAs will need greater capacity to support schools during this crisis, and the government should increase funding to help them do so more effectively.
Promote the use and generation of evidence that is relevant to educators and districts.
  • Focus reporting requirements to promote learning and continuous improvement. In addition to ensuring transparency and accountability, reporting on the use of funds should encourage the use of monitoring and evaluation activities that produce actionable lessons and ideas for improvement. Districts should be provided with resources and technical assistance to routinely collect and analyze data that help them assess needs, make improvements, and understand their impact on student outcomes.
  • Allow flexibility for implementation of evidence-based practices that are contextually relevant. When choosing evidence-based practices, districts should have the flexibility to select or adapt practices that solve a specific problem in their communities and for which they have the funding and technical capacity to implement as designed (as opposed to choosing from a list of pre-selected practices that may not align with the needs of a particular district).  
  • Focus evaluation dollars to help schools and districts build actionable evidence that is relevant for their communities. A small portion of ARRA’s funding was reserved for competitive grant programs, including the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, to test, implement and scale educational interventions. The federal government should provide funding for evaluative activities that can inform the decisions that districts and schools need to make about implementation, improvement, adaptation and scale of evidence-based interventions, and ensure that evaluations are conducted in different settings to produce evidence that is generalizable to different communities (for example, rural schools).

The disruption brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything our education system has experienced on a national scale. Solving this crisis will require swift and sustained action from federal policymakers and administrators to ensure that our schools can meet the needs of their communities.

Bi Vuong is the Managing Director of Education Practice at Project Evident, and Farhana Hossain is a Senior Evidence Advisor. Project Evident’s Education Practice is focused on using evidence to improve decision making and drive better and more sustainable outcomes in the education sector.