The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the achievement gap that exists for students across the nation. Unprecedented federal funding presents the city of New York with an opportunity to begin closing that gap for the more than one million students attending New York City’s public schools. That opportunity cannot be squandered. The City should avoid creating new risks, while failing to address existing risks, in the New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) budget, according to a report released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
The city has expanded existing programs and implemented new programs to address the educational shortfalls and inequities created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but several of them are expected to last well after federal funding sources dry up at the end of fiscal year (FY) 2025. If revenues do not trend better than projected, the city may be forced to cut services or find new revenue sources or funding partners.
“New York City’s school faculty and staff, as well as students and families have been resilient and resourceful in the face of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” DiNapoli said. “It is critical that the city’s Department of Education be clear about how it will help students recover from the impact of the pandemic and address inequalities in the provision of educational services. Historic federal investment has provided an opportunity to meet short-term challenges, but it won’t last forever. I urge the department to address future budgetary risks and commit to prudent long-term financial planning, to ensure its ability to sustain high-quality educational services over the long-term.”
DiNapoli’s report details the DOE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the pandemic on attendance and enrollment, difficulties in measuring student achievement and learning loss, and budgetary risks that arise from the reliance on federal aid. The DOE is set to receive more than $8 billion in emergency federal funding between fiscal years 2021 and 2025, including $6.96 billion in education-related emergency federal funds between 2020 and 2024, $721 million in CARES Act allocation, and additional unrestricted federal emergency funding.
DOE Budget Continues to Grow Amid Sagging Enrollment
The DOE’s FY 2022 budget reached $37.7 billion and accounts for more than 38% of the city’s total expenditures. Even prior to the pandemic, the DOE faced recurring risks to its budget. Longstanding weaknesses in the DOE’s forecasts for spending on charter school tuition, services for students with disabilities, and pupil transportation consistently required the city to add hundreds of millions of dollars more than planned to the department’s final budgets. The largest risk to the DOE’s budget in the years prior to the pandemic was the city’s out-year projections of growth in State education aid.
After significant budget uncertainty throughout the first half of FY 2021, federal aid and state legislation have buoyed the DOE’s FY 2022 budget. The DOE will use more than 40% of the federal aid ($3.3 billion) to pay for new programs or expansions of existing ones over the next four years, including $2 billion to complete the citywide expansion of the city’s 3-K program. However, new programming will create more than $1 billion a year in recurring costs that have no identified source of funding when federal aid expires in FY 2025, forcing the city to find other sources of revenue or cut programs.
Other initiatives partially funded by federal aid through the financial plan period include additional special education services ($532 million), the expansion of mental health services for students ($300 million) and an expansion of the Community Schools program. Lastly, the DOE will put $552 million toward the restoration of programs that had been cut to achieve savings in previous financial plans. Recurring budget risks that existed prior to the pandemic remain unresolved in the financial plan outyears.
Remote Learning, Learning Loss, and the Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for school districts across the country. The DOE, educators, students, and families have had to contend with changing guidance, long-term school closures, remote learning and hybrid learning models, and new health and safety precautions and protocols.
Remote learning allowed the department to pivot quickly to virtual education, but questions about its efficacy arose and underscored disparities among students across the system, as the department has acknowledged. Students with disabilities suffered disproportionately from remote learning as their services were disrupted. Although guidance understandably changed quickly, the lack of consistency and the rapid changes to programming have compounded the negative effects on student learning.
The pandemic’s impact on education was disproportionate. African American and Latino students, who were less likely to have access to conducive learning environments at home, were hit the hardest, according to a number of studies. Attendance rates early in the pandemic and in the spring of 2021, particularly among remote-only students, suggest these impacts disproportionately affected majority nonwhite communities in New York City as well.
Many students lacked the digital devices and internet connectivity to participate effectively in remote learning, particularly in lower income communities. The city purchased 511,000 mobile devices with data plans which were provided to students upon request. However, initial demand rapidly outstripped supply and many families reported delays in receiving the devices.
Student attendance and enrollment fell significantly. In spring 2020, only 85.2% of students attended online classes, compared to in-person attendance of between 91% and 92% pre-pandemic, another factor driving learning losses. Every dropped percentage point represents more than 10,000 students who missed class in New York City. Student enrollment also declined 4.9% in school year 2020-2021, and the city expects only half of students to return.
DiNapoli made several recommendations for the DOE to continue to provide a safe and high-quality education in the future, including:
- Ensure frequent, regular, and clear communication with staff, parents, and students about its decisions and operational protocols.
- Assess student progress to determine whether new programs are helping students overcome learning loss and close the achievement gap.
- Leverage DOE infrastructure to expand vaccine access to younger children to help provide protection against the virus and increase safety systemwide as students return to school buildings.
- Acknowledge existing budgetary risks and commit to prudent long-term financial planning to identify resources to ensure the continued provision of necessary services to students.
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