The Great Depression devastated public education, especially in the rural South. My mother told me of the time counties didn’t have the money to pay teachers for a school year. They managed to pay the teachers for half a year, so students took two years to make one grade level. As you can imagine, the drop-out rate soared given that high school farm kids had to go to work.
Economic activity slowed to a point that tax collections shrank, banks were closed and governments paid teachers and employees with “scrip” which became currency in local economies. An entire generation of students were damaged by the disruption.
We don’t yet know what effect the current pandemic will have on the next generation, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest we are heading into a severe recession or even a depression.
The coronavirus isn’t likely to last as long as the Great Depression but with malls closed, storefronts empty, tourism at a standstill and bars and restaurants closed, sales tax revenue has to take a major hit. And sales tax is the largest source of revenue for the state, and education is the largest expenditure. The top six sales tax collections sites are the cities of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville, plus Williamson and Sevier counties.
A saving grace, if you can call it that, is that people still have to eat and sales tax from groceries will still provide revenue.
Right now, schools are closed and are scheduled to re-open April 24. Will they? How would you like to make the decision on whether to put kids back in classrooms with other children or not? If you are a parent, do you send your child to school and hope for the best? Or is it more likely that schools not reopen until the fall?
What if businesses stay closed? Is it likely there will even be a tourist season this year?
What does education funding in the coming year look like?
By law, state government must fund schools at the same or increased rate as last year. That means the Basic Education Program will be funded. That will take a big chunk of the state’s rainy-day fund and any expenditures beyond K-12 education, higher education and TennCare would be cut if not eliminated. That is essentially the “bare bones” budget the legislature passed for the coming year.
But what about places like Knox County where local city and county sales tax collections supplement the state appropriation? Will county government have the money to maintain support? Can the county cut the level of funding? If not, is it likely that county government will increase taxes amid widespread unemployment and people struggling to make mortgage payments?
We all hope that the virus is contained by the coming school year, but what if it continues? Or comes back. The problem with distance learning or on-line school is a lack of consistency and access. Knox County is sending out materials to allow students to review and try and keep up while at home, but it doesn’t replace regular instruction. Student testing for the year has been suspended.
But there already exists an on-line school in Tennessee. It’s called the Tennessee Virtual Academy, owned by the K12 Corporation, and set up to teach the state’s curriculum. Operated through the Union County Public Schools, it has continuity from grade to grade and students have to take the same tests as in regular classrooms.
But the state of Tennessee has put a cap on the number of students allowed to sign up. The state says students in the program have lousy test scores. Proponents of the school say the first year of operation signed up mostly kids who were struggling in public school and the low scores the first year gave then-Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman an excuse to limit participation.
If K12 is not the answer, something like it may need to be tried. Some experts fear that the coronavirus may act like the flu and return every year during the winter months.
But there are counties across the state that do not have broadband access. Will we have a two-tiered education system?
I don’t envy the people who have to make decisions on these issues. I may be looking at a worst-case scenario. But it would have been nice, if, back in January, someone had started planning for a worst-case scenario and had begun to crank out medical supplies and ventilators.
Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.