Schools are facing both unprecedented academic and mental health challenges among their students and unprecedented pandemic-related funding.
Two NCSL experts, Michelle Exstrom, director of the education program, and Austin Reid, senior legislative director in Washington, summarized key issues legislators are addressing in an NCSL Town Hall on Facebook Live.
Exstrom says assessment tests are showing that low-income and minority students have lost ground compared with students who perform at grade level.
“There has traditionally been a gap, a pretty significant gap,” Exstrom says. “This gap is widening. Legislators are concerned and they really are thinking about what sorts of supports need to be put in place.”
At the same time, schools are scrambling to fill thousands of vacancies—teachers, school bus drivers, people who serve school lunches, she says.
“A good number of adults who are in the classroom are underqualified, and unfortunately that tends to happen most in schools where kids are struggling most to begin with,” Exstrom says.
We’re seeing widespread reports of students reporting suicidal thoughts, a lot of anxiety amongst students and amongst teachers. —Michelle Exstrom, NCSL
There are other major issues: mental health and school safety.
“We’re seeing widespread reports of students reporting suicidal thoughts, a lot of anxiety amongst students and amongst teachers,” Exstrom says. “When teachers are stressed, they can’t do their best teaching.”
Regarding school safety, Exstrom says most states have plans in place, but legislators and school districts are continuing to seek solutions as school shootings persist.
“They’re looking to revise their plans to see if there is anything they missed,” she says. This includes looking at building safety, procedures and beefing up mental health support.
Reid says the federal government has allotted more than $2 billion to school safety through this year’s bipartisan Safer Communities Act. It takes time to make that much money available and for states and districts to determine how to use it, but Reid says at least $1 billion is available now for grants to schools.
The federal government also sharply boosted support for meals this year through the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act, he says. More than 30 million students get daily meals through their schools. Normally the meals are for low-income students, but during the pandemic the food program was free for everyone, and families could collect food at their closed schools to use at home.
This year the cost of the federal program is soaring, even as it transitions back to serving only low-income students, because food prices have gone up with inflation. Reid says the U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded its support this year for school meals.
Overall Reid says most states have increased education funding during the pandemic as state tax revenues have increased, even separate from the federal influx. He notes the federal government has spent more than $200 billion on K-12 since the start of the pandemic.
“It was a historic amount of one-time funding, and the singular largest federal investment in schools,” Reid says.
Schools, he says, are facing the same challenges as businesses: supply chain and labor shortages. And, since every school has money to spend on similar areas, that increases the competition for staff and supplies.
As of March, about 20% of the federal education funding has been spent in the states, he says.
He says this school year, if the pandemic doesn’t flare up again, districts and legislators can start to see the fuller results and impact of spending plans.
NCSL tracks education issues at the state and federal level.