By Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York
New York City public schools are projected to receive $4.5 billion in federal coronavirus relief, bringing a significant financial boost as education officials plan for the fall.
The money comes from a sprawling, $1.9 trillion relief package signed into law last week, and could mean that the state will walk back its proposed state cuts for New York schools. But big questions remain, including how state and city officials will use this new infusion of cash — roughly $4,500 more per student — to help schools rebound from a year of unprecedented disruption.
More specifics may not emerge until April, when Mayor Bill de Blasio typically provides an update to his preliminary budget proposal. But one thing is certain: one-fifth of the money to districts must be spent on “evidence-based” practices to combat “learning loss,” which amounts to about $900 million for New York City.
De Blasio has offered few clues for the fall, which he hopes will either be in person five days a week or fully remote. Beyond announcing a vague framework for providing extra academic and mental health support, the mayor has not yet shared many details or the projected cost of such plans. Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter, in a recent interview with Chalkbeat, said more answers would come soon as to whether individual schools will be able to choose how to spend the money or whether the education department will issue directives.
Since the stimulus must be distributed through the federal government’s Title 1 formula, a large portion of the dollars will go to districts that serve many students from low-income families. In the nation’s largest system, about 73% of students are from low-income families, and the city will receive about half of the $8.9 billion set aside for the state’s education system. The money can be used until 2024.
City to state: gives schools their due
The federal package is the third since last year and by far the largest, providing nearly $130 billion to schools across the country. Across all three packages, nearly $7 billion in relief has been slated for New York City schools, but it hasn’t exactly boosted city schools.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo used the first package to offset state cuts for schools, when he cut more than $1 billion in state funding for schools across New York and supplanted that with federal money, resulting in higher poverty districts taking a bigger financial hit. (The new federal stimulus prohibits states from making bigger cuts to high poverty districts compared to wealthier ones.) Cuomo proposed doing the same thing with funding from the second relief package approved in December, using about half of the $4 billion in schools to plug state funding gaps. The governor hasn’t publicly said how he plans to disburse funds from this third package, but budget observers say that the size of this new federal package will make it hard for Cuomo to justify state budget cuts to schools.
“What we can most likely say with some certainty is, the size of these pots of money mean that the cuts should at least be backfilled and restored,” said Brian Cechnicki, executive director of New York Association of School Business Officials.
City officials are urging the state not to supplant these new federal dollars in any way.
“We are reviewing the new federal stimulus,” Katie O’Hanlon, spokesperson for the education department, wrote in an email, “and it’s essential that NYC’s share is not offset by state cuts so we can ensure every education dollar we’re promised will go towards our students, staff and communities.”
City and state officials previously said they could not further boost money for schools without more federal aid, as the state stared down a $15 billion deficit and the city projected a $5 billion shortfall through the next fiscal year — though those gaps may be overstated. The new stimulus provides money for local government budgets that is separate from the school funding and comes close to plugging New York’s gaps: New York State is slated to receive $12.5 billion, while New York City’s government will receive about $6 billion.
It leaves some questions about how this money will impact city and state services, including schools. Still, the aid is more than double what Cuomo had planned for the state to receive under his proposed budget for the next two fiscal years, and the state senate and assembly have proposed raising roughly $7 billion in new tax revenue.
Freeman Klopott, spokesperson for the state’s budget office, said Cuomo “made clear” that the state needed $15 billion in federal funding to close its budget gap for next fiscal year, and said officials are seeking more guidance from Washington D.C. “to better understand how this funding can be used.”
“The federal funding is a one-shot resource and is not recurring, and we will work with the legislature to identify the best solutions to close the current and out-year budget gaps as we negotiate the budget ahead of the April 1 deadline,” Klopott said in a statement.
Advocates want mental health supports, small classes
Despite some of the uncertainties, advocates are already sharing suggestions on who the city and state should spend the money, with many focusing on mental health support and smaller class size.
The president of the New York City teachers union urged city officials to begin planning now on how to spend the money. He pointed to last year’s hastily organized virtual summer school, where nearly a quarter of students didn’t log on, as a cautionary tale.
“We can’t have what happened last summer happen again, where we have a summer program where basically City Hall threw a dart at the board and completely missed the board,” Michael Mulgrew said at a press conference last week. “We now have much more information. We need to have a targeted program.”
The teachers union wants to earmark $1 billion to build teams at each school to provide academic intervention for students and assist with their mental health needs. The union also wants to pilot a program for smaller class sizes at 100 high-needs schools — a move that would require 1,500 new teachers.
Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, is also calling for more investments in social-emotional learning and smaller class sizes.
But governments must ensure they can financially support them once the federal help is gone so that districts aren’t, for example, “hiring more teachers now just to lay them off in two years,” she cautioned. Her organization has pushed the state to provide more funding for schools and supports raising taxes on ultra-wealthy New Yorkers.
“How do we make sure districts don’t hit a fiscal cliff when this funding runs out, and all of a sudden we lose all the good things we started or are heading towards?” Gripper said. “We’re asking the state to raise revenue now so that when federal dollars run out, the state can step in and make continued investments.”
Gripper fears local and state governments could spend all of the money too quickly without strategically thinking about how to spread it out over the next few years. For that reason, she wants a public-facing spending tracker, so people can see how the money is being used.
Mental health support should be a big investment priority for districts, echoed Dia Bryant, executive director of Education Trust-New York. She wants to see the city invest in “restorative” summer programming that includes both academic and cultural enrichment for students, such as visiting a museum or an outdoor concert, she said.
New York City should already be trying to find out how many families want their children back in school buildings, Bryant said. That “information gathering” about what families want for the fall can also guide how to plan for other initiatives, such as Saturday enrichment programs.
“There will inevitably be parents who want remote learning in the fall,” Bryant said. “If they choose that, we should be able to choose something that’s high quality, and I think there is an opportunity to use their feedback right now so that it’s better going forward.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.