We are seeing some rays of optimism after the COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts to close for months: Montana and Texas have become the first states to allow districts to reopen some of their schools.

Unfortunately, we are also seeing more negative effects.

The government response to COVID-19 resulted in school closures and a weakened economy, which forced many states to brace for budget fallouts in light of unexpected revenue losses.

Right on cue, special-interest groups responded to state budget changes by loudly clamoring for more federal dollars for traditional public schools.

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Federal bailouts, however, are not an appropriate response. As noted by Lindsey Burke, my colleague and director of Heritage’s Center for Education Policy:

Congress should not be sending blank checks to states and localities, which would only serve to bail out many states that are financially mismanaged and to prop up excessive levels of state and local government spending, and could set a dangerous precedent for the future.

Instead, states should allow districts to reopen schools as soon as possible.

Localities should reopen schools with strict health protocols and flexible truancy policies to ensure that students and their communities remain safe and healthy, as argued by Jonathan Butcher and Amy Anderson in Newsday.

At the same time, policymakers should focus on more flexible school choice alternatives.

One-size-fits-all education systems have demonstrated they are largely ill equipped to shift instruction online or have emergency management plans in place for when they must shut down.

Instead of funding this outdated paradigm, states should adopt a more flexible spending model where education dollars are student-centered and nimble.

That includes options like education savings accounts, which enable families to put their child’s share of education funding toward education expenses of their choice.

These parent-controlled accounts can be used for private school tuition, online learning, private tutors, transportation related to education, and textbooks, among other services.

That flexibility makes education savings accounts particularly well-suited to meet the needs of students when schools shut down.

Education savings accounts successfully operate in five different states today. In Arizona, eligible children receive 90% (approximately $6,000) of the education dollars that they would have received if they had attended one of the state’s district schools.

“[Education savings accounts] give parents a kind of ‘money-back guarantee’ if they want to opt out of their zoned public schools and choose other options,” explains Kathryn Hickok, vice president of the Cascade Policy Institute.

Additionally, policymakers should make sure that families can continue to access their education choice options after the pandemic. Children should not lose their eligibility to participate in school choice options once they have qualified.

Options like education savings accounts are based on the idea that education dollars should fund students, rather than physical school buildings. The dollars should follow each student to a learning option that is the right fit for them.

Such policy is not only a boon to students, but is now critical as private schools around the country are struggling to survive in the wake of COVID-19.

Innovative states like North Carolina have turned to school choice to alleviate some of the fiscal constraints caused by COVID-19. The state recently introduced a proposal that provides emergency tax credit scholarships for private schools and homeschooling families.

Under the North Carolina proposal, families that were eligible for the CARES Act stimulus checks or who have seen a 10% reduction in their adjusted gross income would be eligible for state-funded tax credit scholarships. These families could receive a $2,500 scholarship to pay for private school tuition.

Similarly, homeschooling families could receive a $500 tax credit scholarship.

This proposal would be a boon for many North Carolina families, particularly those in which a parent has lost a job due to the coronavirus shutdowns.  

In recent months, COVID-19 has forced families to sail in uncharted waters. This experience provides us with a helpful reminder that children are best served when their education funds are student-centered instead of institution-centered.

As state policymakers prepare for the 2020-21 school year, they should remember the lessons of this past spring, and provide families with access to flexible education options.