How Public Schools Became America’s Social Safety Net

How Public Schools Became America’s Social Safety Net

How Public Schools Became America’s Social Safety Net

Even without sufficient resources, schools serve as a critical source of support for disadvantaged kids.


When the pandemic forced schools to close their doors almost a year ago, families and districts scrambled. There was the rush to shift to online learning, a massive, underfunded task that immediately revealed the scope of the country’s digital divide. There was heightened concern over child abuse, as kids lost access to not only a daily reprieve from violent homes but also a critical support network. And then, as the public health crisis became an economic crisis, there was widespread hunger—especially among kids.

Between March and May of 2020, the rate of food insecurity tripled in the United States; by May, one-fifth of mothers were struggling to feed their children—the highest rate since such data became available in 2001. By October, more than 40 percent of kids were living in homes where there wasn’t enough to eat. Anti-hunger advocates said school closures—coupled with rising unemployment and insufficient federal benefits—were to blame. Nearly two-thirds of school-age children, or about 30 million kids, depend on school-provided breakfasts and lunches for their calorie needs. Remote learning meant that families could no longer rely on these free or reduced-price meals.

Emergency measures helped, but couldn’t fill the gap. A grab-and-go program that allowed families to retrieve meals on-site saw low pick-up rates; only 61 percent of eligible children got the meals, according to an Urban Institute study from last May. Families lacked reliable transportation, or were unable—between child care, supervising remote learning, and jobs—to go get the food. In some cases, administrators closed pick-up sites, out of fear they’d become Covid-19 hot spots. A program to transfer the dollar amount of missed meals onto debit cards, while effective, saw significant rollout issues that left families in some states without assistance for months.

After nearly a year without consistent in-person school, children—especially from low-income Black and Latinx families—are not only falling behind academically. They’re hungrier, less safe, and going without the mental-health support that schools normally provide. It’s understandable that school reopening has been one of the most divisive issues of the pandemic, as teachers, unions, and families struggle to agree on the trade-off between public health and in-person education. But the devastating consequences of school closures reveal another fundamental truth about the roles schools play in American life. For low-income kids in particular, the public school system has, in many ways, come to replace the social safety net.

That wasn’t always the case. But the public-school system’s mandate has grown steadily, without additional resources to foot the cost. The overburdened school system tells a story about the country’s strained welfare system and provides a window into its national priorities.

The government used to fully pay for the expansion of school services. In the late 19th century, in the lead-up to the Progressive Era, advocates for universal education saw school services—from lunch to vaccines—as a way to bring more kids into the system and improve retention rates. “People realized that if you offer services, if you offer lunch, kids will come to school,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “More than that, they realized that if kids are healthy, they’ll stay.”

“In the US,” explained Miriam Cohen, a professor of history at Vassar College, “we have a really hard time with just giving people enough money so they don’t starve. School lunches became a vehicle, because people said, ‘If kids need food to be educated, then it’s OK.’” The same was true of in-school health clinics: “‘If kids are ill, they won’t learn, so let’s vaccinate them,” Cohen added. “Schools became a vehicle for public services, but those services overloaded schools.”

The New Deal helped formalize and federalize nonacademic school services. Although initiatives like vaccine distribution drew some controversy, school meals were popular with the public and for decades benefited from steady federal investment. That lasted until 1981, when the Reagan administration slashed $1.5 billion from the school lunch program. “’Education,” President Ronald Reagan said, ”is the principal responsibility of local school systems, teachers, parents, citizen boards, and state governments.”

As the federal government began axing public services in the 1980s, schools—which have always drawn the vast majority of their funding from local and state governments—tried to fill in. “We have 100 percent used schools to replace the social safety net,” Zimmerman said.

Daniel Jerome, who has taught public school in the Bronx for over two decades, said that in disadvantaged communities, “students bring in all the issues that come with poverty, and that flares up at school. Who helps the families navigate it? What institutions are there for them? And who helps them identify other services—for food, for housing, psychological health, and health care?”

On-campus social workers—already rare in the schools that need it the most—help, but much of the responsibility falls on teachers. When the pandemic began, many of Jerome’s students started showing signs of depression; lockdown measures and economic hardship exacerbated difficult home situations. “I was utterly disappointed that the Department of Education didn’t help us. I hoped they’d have a plan.”

But they didn’t, and Jerome talked to students and their families, not only to break down stigmas around seeking mental-health care but also to assist with the logistics of finding support. In one case, his wife, a native Spanish speaker, spent an hour on the phone with a parent to convince them to see the school counselor. “You can’t just say, a social worker will call this family. When all this plays out in the classroom, it’s my responsibility as a teacher. I don’t mind doing it, but all of that takes away from the education of the child.”

Decades of disinvestment have placed schools in the impossible position of serving as a critical source of support for disadvantaged kids but lacking sufficient resources. The ongoing blow to school budgets has only been compounded by a widening gap between state and local funding. Because local funds rely heavily on property taxes, school districts in affluent neighborhoods have an easier time raising revenue than those in poorer ones. Cuts to state income taxes, which are essential to school revenue, put a strain on poorer districts.

“Ask any superintendent, and they’ll tell you that as the school’s mandate has increased, funding has remained stagnant or even decreased,” said Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance. “They can’t publicly say, ‘We can’t do this,’ and yet financially, they’re under a lot of pressure.”

Wilson—like most defenders of public education—believes that schools should play a role in childhood nutrition and health. “Absolutely, the public school system should be the center of the community,” she said. “But at a certain point, you start to shake your head and say, ‘How can we do this without more funding? Is this a school or a community center?’ It can be both, but to make that choice, there needs to be funding.”

Public-school enrollment is down across the country, as parents who can afford it turn to home-schooling or private education. Billions in federal relief to public schools have been largely offset by costs involved in measures to deal with the pandemic, such as providing students with laptops and changing school meal programs. As fewer students eat breakfast and lunch at school, the cost per meal tends to increase; schools are reimbursed only for meals served, but production costs—salaries for cooking staff and equipment, not to mention protective gear—don’t change. By December, advocates estimated that the pandemic had cost public schools $200 billion.

“There is a significant need right now for an influx in funding from federal and state governments,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children of New York, an education advocacy group. But federal funding, she stressed, must be accompanied by state and local leadership to ensure that resources go to districts with real needs. In New York State, for example, state budget cuts canceled out federal funding; Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “pandemic adjustment” budget, which followed the CARES Act, led to a $1.1 billion reduction for school districts.

Teachers, who have navigated waning budgets for years, are bracing for further declines. “You feel the impact of cuts on kids and teachers in the clubs and after-school programs, because you can’t pay teachers to stay,” said Vivett Dukes, who for nearly a decade taught middle and high-school English and language arts in Jamaica, Queens, before starting at a school in Manhattan this year. “It’s those hours between 3 and 6 pm when kids have a lot of trouble, when they’re unsupervised,” she said. Since taking a position in a more affluent neighborhood, Dukes has been struck by the disparities between districts. “The difference is clear, with how much parents can supplement. Now, if there are kinks in the budget, parents can lift that load.”

Trump, of course, made it all worse. As education expert Diane Ravitch details in a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, spent four years shifting funds from public education to private, religious, and charter schools. School-choice lobbyists encouraged charter, private, and religious schools to apply as nonprofits for grants from the Paycheck Protection Program, which the CARES Act created to provide relief to small businesses. The result was that thousands of non-public schools ended up with an average of $855,000 each in emergency funding—compared to the $134,500 that public schools received.

“That absolutely blew my mind,” said Jerome, the Bronx teacher. “Public schools were working on a skeleton budget, and these private schools got inundated with funds.”

Tajh Sutton, the program manager at Teens Take Charge, a youth-led organization that advocates for equity and integration in New York City public schools, said, “What’s glaring to me is that schools in low-income communities have always had to go above and beyond for their children, because they’re not only experiencing divestment in the school space but their entire communities have been divested from.”

Meanwhile, amid a national uproar over police brutality and growing calls to redistribute police funds, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cut the education budget by over $700 million.

“We have such bloated [city] budgets, yet people don’t know where the money goes,” said Sutton, who went to New York City public schools and has two children in the system. “When you look at the state of schools, calls to defund the police make so much sense—and yet we couldn’t even take a dollar from the militarized presence in our city that brutalized protesters all summer.”

The urgency of increased federal, state, and local funding should not overshadow the need for deeper, structural changes, advocates say, both to the education system and to public services more broadly.

Inequities in the school system “can’t be fixed with funding alone,” said Conor Williams, an education expert at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “We need an approach to address inequity in public education that does more than say, ‘Let’s put more money into our dramatically inequitable system.’ We need to disrupt the basic inequalities in the system,” he said, by addressing other disparities in access to wealth and housing—and increasing the federal government’s role in supporting the nation’s school districts.

“What I would love to see in a post-pandemic world would be a significant push to grow the federal footprint in public education,” Williams said, “including additional funding to support historically marginalized students.”

Jerome pointed out that schools in poorer areas take on more responsibilities and should therefore receive more funding. “Even if the money’s equal, it’s still going to be more challenging to support children in high-poverty environments, which often have greater emotional, social, academic needs.”

Biden has already demonstrated a willingness to bolster the safety net and expand child support programs, at least in the short term; the White House is pushing a relief bill that would give schools $130 billion toward safely reopening. But absent a complete overhaul in federal assistance, schools will continue to play an essential role for families.

The impact of school closures on low-income families’ livelihoods has drawn attention to the Community Schools initiative, which has gained visibility in recent years but remains limited in scope. Community schools are public schools that, through public-and-private partnerships, offer services from enhanced extracurricular activities to “wraparound services” like dental and orthodontic care.

New York City has the largest network of such schools in the country, with 267 campuses across all five boroughs. Although de Blasio cut $3 million from community school budgets last summer, he announced in December that the city would fund community schools in the 27 New York City neighborhood hardest hit by the pandemic, expanding the community schools model. (It remains unclear whether previous funding would be restored.)

Sutton’s kids aren’t in community schools, and she didn’t attend one herself. But she’s enthusiastic about the model: “Wrap-around services just make sense—so many kids need a school that has a washer and dryer, a food pantry,” she said. “A school needs to support the whole child, because there are kids whose basic needs must be met before they can learn.”

In December, a group of educators and advocates who make up the Brookings Institution’s Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools wrote an open letter to the Biden administration, calling for a fundamental rethink of public schools, drawing on the community school model. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all model, the next administration could support community schools as an “approach, or a mindset,” said Rebecca Winthrop, a senior fellow and codirector of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution.

“In countries that put their citizens first and have social safety nets, free public health care, day care and mental health services throughout for anyone who needs it, you don’t need to spend so much time to create integrated support or wraparound services in most schools,” Winthrop said. “But if you accept the premise that the US isn’t going to get there any time soon, which I think is realistic, then schools are the right place to do it.”

Enabling more schools to adopt the model requires money, but it’s also a question of logistics and partnerships, according to Abelardo Fernandez, director of the National Center for Community Schools at Children’s Aid. “The idea is to draw on all that schools have to offer, but being more intentional and strategic about how to leverage and use existing dollars in ways regular schools cannot,” he said. One example: “A public school generally cannot bill Medicaid for students in general education classes. But if you have a partner organization that is running an Article 31 school-based clinic, we’re now leveraging existing dollars in ways that schools cannot.”

Expanding the community-schools approach is just one element of what advocates say is needed amid a broken welfare system. With that in mind, Sutton, the organizer, expressed frustration at what she sees as a reductive debate on school reopening—and a missed opportunity to reimagine public schools in the United States. “There’s this narrative of you either want schools to open and you care about kids, or you want them to close and you don’t care about kids. There are so many of us who are deeply impacted by closures, but who want schools to reopen differently,” she said. “Schools are integral pillars of the community. And if we believe that, why won’t we fund them?”

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