Congress wrapped up another round of coronavirus funding last week, and further aid measures are likely on the way. But will lawmakers continue to help the airline industry soar and leave education at the gate?
In the roughly $2 trillion relief package passed last month, the airline industry received $61 billion in loans, grants and payroll protection, while education received about half that amount: $31 billion split between K-12 and higher education.
There is no contesting the importance of supporting the airline industry, but if stimulus spending priorities are determined by economic impact, then Congress and the White House should give education more altitude.
The airline industry employs 750,000 people, while K-12 and higher education employs over 4 million, with more than 50 million students attending public schools. Though U.S. airlines’ direct contribution to the nation’s GDP hovers around $641 billion, this number comes nowhere close to expenditures for K-12 and higher education, which collectively totaled $1.4 trillion (or 7.2 percent of GDP) in 2018.
Planes may be empty, but so are our schools. Without minimizing the anxiety and stress on employees, an empty seat for an airline means reduced operations and lost revenue. But empty seats in our nation’s schools mean unparalleled changes to continue the education of 50 million K-12 students and over 22 million in higher education.
Few industries, with the exception of health care workers, are experiencing such a radical shift in operations. In a matter of days, 3.2 million teachers and even more postsecondary instructors were engaging in distance learning, while administrators cobbled together feeding programs for the millions of low-income students who get much of their nutrition through in-school programs.
With every school now racing to implement new ways to meet student and teacher needs, adding funds that encourage innovation and require evaluation will be essential for supporting this new learning environment. And while granting flexibility to shift existing funds to meet pressing needs can be useful, providing adequate funds to meet those needs doesn’t require robbing one vital need to meet another.
If Congress considers quality education as both a moral and monetary imperative, it will include more funding in the next stimulus package to stabilize the revenue hemorrhaging from the nation’s 14,000 school districts. With distance learning as the new reality, at least $2 billion should be included to ensure broadband connectivity in the homes of low-income students.
When airlines begin flying again, it will revitalize tourism and spur economic growth. The next stimulus bill must also move education to the runway for millions of students to succeed.
Bob Wise is a Democrat who served as West Virginia governor from 2001 to 2005 and as a congressman for nine terms. He previously led the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education and currently heads Bob Wise LLC, an education consulting firm.