Rutgers professor discuss state of school finances during the pandemic, new administration

Schools needs federal money to renovate and replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems – upgrades that will help combat the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and get students and teachers back into the classroom, says Bruce Baker, a professor of educational theory, policy and administration at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education. 

Bruce Baker
Bruce Baker is a professor of education.

The school finance expert, who was recently named among the nation's most influential university-based education scholars by Education Week, talks about where administrators should spend money and the challenges the Biden administration faces as schools prepare for a new normal.

How has the pandemic affected school funding?

The pandemic has highlighted the need for a short-term infusion of resources to make existing schools safer and healthier for staff and students. Increasing expenses for cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE) and technology for increased remote access will go a long way. While they can add up, these expenses are probably still the smallest among financial issues. Additionally, if the federal government invested a large sum in school facilities renewal and environmental improvements, the ongoing costs of operating those facilities would decrease. But since the government has not made a significant investment in infrastructure renewal, what's being allocated will go into annual operations and ongoing costs. Districts will not be able to take the funds allocated and use them for facilities renewal.

How has the state budget been affected? 

State budgets have yet to be fully resolved by an appropriately structured federal stimulus package, which has created significant issues. When state budgets take a hit and income and sales tax revenues dip, there's usually a sizable and sharp decline for one to three years. We learned a lot from the last Great Recession and a long, slow recovery is likely. State budgets and, by extension, general aid to local school districts will need significant support for ongoing expenses over the next few years. But that support cannot go away immediately as it did during the Great Recession. It left substantial budget holes in year three before states had fully recovered. Ongoing district costs, like making sure schools can provide enough nurses, counselors and small class sizes, require ongoing support. Federal aid will need to increase beyond years two and three.

How do inequities exacerbate the problem? 

The extent of inequity in school buildings in terms of safety, health and overall capacity is incredible. Buying more PPE or having more nurses won't solve the long-accumulated and deferred problems of overcrowded, poorly ventilated school buildings that, in many cases, are over 50 years old. The same facilities also often suffer the greatest deficits in technology infrastructure while serving communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. These upgrades may be an excellent use of a large infusion of federal funding because the effects will last a long time. One factor that limits district ability to reduce class sizes by merely hiring more teachers is the lack of useful, quality space. There are not enough classrooms. Schools cannot focus on class size reduction by concentrating on personnel alone. Buildings matter. 

What challenges does the Biden administration face?

The current Biden framework includes some of these elements but lacks sufficient detail to interpret fully. The plan needs to better flesh out short-term issues like COVID-19 preparedness, medium-term by filling state budget holes and the longer-term, which includes maintaining adequate funding and investing in infrastructure issues. While focusing on hiring teachers to reduce class size sounds good politically, there have to be classrooms to house these smaller class sizes