Stop saving businesses and start saving schools

Most companies can’t get back to full capacity until in-person school begins and parents can be back at work

A school bus lot on New York Avenue Northeast in Washington on Friday. Public schools face a reopening dilemma that would not have existed had Congress thought to rescue them before businesses, Murphy writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
A school bus lot on New York Avenue Northeast in Washington on Friday. Public schools face a reopening dilemma that would not have existed had Congress thought to rescue them before businesses, Murphy writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 28, 2020 at 6:00am

Business is back at Bombshells on Interstate 10, east of Houston. The military-themed sports bar — think of it as a cross between Hooters and “Top Gun” — has 104 HD televisions, seating for 400 and free Wi-Fi for customers. Bombshells is also a brand of RCI Hospitality Holdings, the publicly traded company that won $5.4 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program funds in May through the CARES Act, according to its SEC filing

A 10-minute drive east of Bombshells is the Raul C. Martinez Elementary School, the home of the Mustangs and the primary school for some 500-plus mostly Hispanic students from pre-K to fifth grade when it closed its campus in March as COVID-19 swept across the country. In a usual year, which would have started next month, the Title I school would have offered Math Club, Gardening Club, and Name-That-Book Club, among others, after school. But earlier this month, the Houston Independent School District, the largest in Texas, announced that the first day of school for the Mustangs and all Houston schools will start online-only in September because of the ongoing spread of COVID-19, with a plan for students to be back on campus by October 19th at the earliest. 

So, Bombshells is open, schools are closed, and we have Congress and the White House to blame after they spent trillions of dollars this spring to rescue companies and local economies, but failed to give public schools anywhere near enough money to operate this fall in a pandemic. The CARES Act flooded companies with $660 billion of PPP money, but allocated just $13.2 billion to K-12 schools.

Washington somehow managed to socialize American business by moving the financial risks to taxpayers, but also privatize public education by pushing the costs of safely educating children on to the parents who can afford it this fall.

Dereliction of duty

That’s not just a policy failure, but a failure of the role so basic to our identity as a nation that the first public school in America, Boston Latin, was founded in 1635, more than a century before the country itself. But even Boston Latin won’t open as scheduled this year, with Boston public schools and thousands of others across the country deciding they can’t safely have students on campus as normal when they do. 

Without public schools to send their kids to, parents who can afford it are scrambling for a Plan B. Elite private schools, like Washington’s Sidwell Friends, which incidentally received $5 million in PPP funds, are fully enrolled for the fall. So parents are turning to everything from DIY ”microschools” to gyms to country clubs to pandemic pop-ups offering to do homeschool for them. 

In Atlanta, a group of former preschool teachers is starting a pod proctoring academy with the tagline, “They get work done,  You get work done.” A local gym, which usually trains competitive youth gymnasts, will host “Leap & Learn” camp, where coaches will supervise students’ Zoom calls and online learning. An exclusive  country club is transforming its summer camp into a “Digital Learning Lab” for members’ children. At $375 per week, that’s $12,600 per child, per year. 

These are innovative, but wildly expensive, solutions for a problem that never would have existed had the CARES Act rescued schools before businesses, instead of businesses before schools, only to realize that most businesses can’t get back to full capacity until in-person school begins and parents can be back at work.  

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Schools first

The next round of COVID-19 relief funding that the Senate will debate this week has to put schools in the front of the line for funding, not the back. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health has detailed the general steps schools should follow to safely reopen, including reducing class sizes (i.e., hiring more teachers and finding new classrooms) and installing plexiglass and new air systems.

That’s on top of the steps local districts such as Kansas City Public Schools have already paid for that you would probably never think of, like $100,000 on food warmers to serve meals in classrooms and half a million dollars on extra cleaning supplies and thermometers.

Without major federal funding, any “guidelines” are really just unfunded mandates.  

The House-passed the HEROES Act in May would cover much of it, with $915 billion for state and local budget gaps, which can be used for public schools, along with $100 billion for K-12 and higher education, and $1.5 billion to for digital access. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan this week includes $105 billion for schools. If he’s looking to protect jobs too, an analysis by the National Education Association estimates that 1.9 million education jobs will be lost because of state budget cuts without a round of emergency federal funding like the House has passed.

Washington’s priorities always show up in the money it spends. So far, it’s bailed out Bombshells, country clubs, hedge funds, law firms, private schools and even Kanye West’s fashion brand, Yeezy.

It’s time to save schools before businesses. Doing that will save both in the end. 

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.