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Trump's threat to defund education adds pressure to schools squeezed by coronavirus

President Donald Trump's threat Wednesday to cut off federal funding for schools if they don't open in the fall is the latest stress for schools already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Tami Luhby
CNN — President Donald Trump's threat Wednesday to cut off federal funding for schools if they don't open in the fall is the latest stress for schools already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

The President can't unilaterally cut current federal support of schools, and the federal government provided only 8.3% of funding for public elementary and secondary schools in 2015-2016, the last year for which a detailed funding breakdown was available. But Trump could try to restrict some recent pandemic relief funding or refuse to sign future education grants and bailouts, and any reductions in federal funding would hit schools hard.

The shuttering of schools across the country resulted in the loss of more than 737,000 local education jobs between March and May, though districts added roughly 70,000 positions last month.

Meanwhile, the average district may have to spend an additional $1.8 million to institute and adhere to health and safety protocols, according to a joint estimate by the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials International.

Education groups quickly slammed Trump's remarks.

"To be clear: there is no mechanism by which they can decide to magically withhold funding without Congressional authorization," tweeted Sasha Pudelski, AASA's advocacy director.

"Nothing that Donald Trump has said in the last 48 hours has been safe or responsible," Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, told CNN's Brianna Keilar Wednesday, also referring to Trump ramping up the pressure this week for schools to reopen.

At the same time, school districts are also expecting to take a hit in state support, which accounts for about 47% of funding. State sales and income tax revenues have plummeted amid governors' mandates that residents stay at home and non-essential businesses close, which prompted the loss of millions of jobs.

Though those orders are being lifted, at least two dozen states are now pausing or rolling back their reopening plans amid the recent surge in cases. Tax revenue shortfalls could hit $200 billion for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, according to a recent estimate from the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan think tank.

Since states have to balance their budgets, they typically have to cut spending when revenue falls. And education is often a target since it makes up a large chunk of state budgets.

For now, many states are holding off on making deep reductions in hopes of additional federal funding and an improved economy in the second half of this year.

Lawmakers included more than $13 billion in federal funds to help schools cover coronavirus costs as part of the the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill Congress passed in late March, though the Education Department ruled that some of the money should go to private schools. Several Democratic-led states are suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over the rule.

Meanwhile, the ax has already fallen on school districts in some states.

Colorado slashed about $540 million from K-12 operations for the current fiscal year, but the state received $510 million in federal relief money for schools. Lawmakers made "some pretty big cuts" to state support knowing that some federal relief funding would "help see them through," said Democratic state Rep. Daneya Esgar, chair of the Colorado General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee.

Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine cut $300 million in public school funding for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Though some of the reductions are being offset by federal funding, it will not make up all of the losses, said Wendy Patton, senior project director of Policy Matters Ohio, a left-leaning group. Schools are contending with higher costs to teach students amid the pandemic, she said.

"I've seen spreadsheets that show a great number of districts showing red ink for the fall," Patton said. "They are getting less money than they anticipated."

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