But however much New York gets from the federal government in the coming months, it won’t be enough for our public school children if the state uses that federal aid to replace rather than add to the state’s own funding of our public schools.
The $1.1 billion in federal stimulus money already received went to local school districts. But at the same time New York state officials used the new money as an opportunity to lower the state’s own school funding.
In general, federal funds are supposed to be used to supplement rather than to supplant or replace local contributions, but unfortunately the current pandemic relief plan leaves the states some flexibility to reduce their own investments in education.
New York’s budget problems are real, with tax revenues declining in many areas because of the damage the coronavirus epidemic has done to our economy. The state’s most recent estimates predict a total deficit of more than $60 billion for the next four years.
The good news — at least for the moment — is that according to both the state and city fiscal officials, tax revenues have come in somewhat above the most pessimistic projections, and new federal funds can certainly help close remaining budget gaps.
But when our schools fully re-open, we won’t be getting back to the pre-COVID world.
The “new normal” will include hundreds of thousands of students who have lost weeks of valuable learning time, despite the heroic efforts by teachers, both in classrooms and online. That deficit must be made up.
Most importantly, our schools will also need significant new investments in mental health services to help children manage the emotional damage caused by the sickness and deaths of loved ones, along with the prolonged isolation that affected so many families.
Schools are far from the only areas that will need new funding to deal with the long-term effects of the pandemic. Too many New Yorkers will continue to struggle with unemployment, homelessness, and food scarcity.
The state’s budget process will have to balance these needs with available federal help and the strength of the New York economic recovery, which could take years. Additional revenue ideas now on the table range from levies on the legalized sale of marijuana and on-line gambling to increased taxes on the wealthy.
There will also be other possibilities, which the legislature can weigh.
But whatever strategies the state develops to deal with the budget challenges posed by the pandemic, our children will have to meet the challenges of a post-COVID society.
They won’t be able to do so if the schools never see their fair share of new funds.
Michael Mulgrew is president of the United Federation of Teachers. This op-ed originally ran in the Gotham Gazette.