One size does not fit all when it comes to education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this education choice adage crystal clear. With schools shuttered nationwide since mid-March, millions of children became instant homeschoolers.
For some students, like Veronique Mintz, remote learning was more effective than classroom experiences. Fewer disruptions from other students, dedicated office hours to get extra help, and the ability to replay video lessons helped Veronique in her new remote setting.
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But not all schools are doing a sufficient job of transitioning to online instruction. Education Week surveyed teachers in early May and found only 37% interact with their students at least daily, and 82% said their students’ engagement declined.
For students who were already behind academically pre-pandemic, learning loss was compounded.
The new school year will be here before we know it. In order to make sure students have what they need and barriers to education access do not persist, policymakers should pursue immediate, student-centered policies to help kids get back on track and keep them there.
Unique challenges require a unique approach—like a proposal under consideration in Pennsylvania, known as the Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts proposal. These emergency, restricted-use accounts would be funded using leftover money the state received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law in late March.
This aid package provided temporary emergency funds to states—and Congress should not pass further bailouts. But for funds that have already been appropriated, it’s smart to look at student-centered and portable solutions to the education challenges we face.
With the proposed education scholarship accounts program in Pennsylvania, families could use their accounts for approved education-related purchases, such as tuition, homeschool curriculum, tutoring, counseling, and services for students with special needs.
The Back on Track proposal would enable parents—rather than government officials—to determine what help their children need. The accounts would also cover costs for many parents who plan to homeschool until they feel ready to send their child back to the physical school building.
Parents could even use their accounts to hire tutors to help their children get back up to speed during the summer or after school.
School districts will also benefit from Back on Track. As Politico recently reported, school leaders face the tough task of trying to reopen schools while accommodating the needs of families and teachers who feel unsafe returning to the classroom.
Bringing an education scholarship account option to Pennsylvania would benefit Keystone State students, teachers, and taxpayers in four specific ways:
- It would allow district leaders to focus on safely reopening schools rather than designing catch-up summer and after-school programs.
- It would saves school districts money since they won’t need to provide those catch-up programs.
- Families who feel unsafe in traditional schools could pursue alternative options.
- It could mitigate a flood of new students into the public system who may no longer be able to afford tuition to attend their current private school.
Which brings us to one of the underreported casualties of the coronavirus pandemic: private schools.
The Cato Institute tracks permanent private school closures that are at least partially connected to COVID-19. These aren’t elite schools catering to the rich and famous. Most are urban and rural schools serving low- and middle-income families, and minority populations. Students whose schools close will be forced to leave their teachers, friends, and communities. This is tragedy on top of tragedy.
These school closures will increase the financial pressure on school districts around the country. With average per-pupil spending above $15,000, districts face a potential hit of more than $140 million from closures that have already been announced.
Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts can help students remain at the schools that are working for them, for a fraction of the cost to taxpayers if those students had to enroll in district schools.
States like Pennsylvania should also design an education scholarship account option for families that is permanent and has broad-based eligibility, enabling as many students as possible to participate. This will allow students to receive the education that works for them while freeing up resources for district schools.
Conversations around education choice and rethinking outdated K-12 financing formulas have been ongoing for decades. The pandemic is now bringing that issue to the forefront.
In order to provide families with education continuity, protect taxpayers, and be prepared for any future challenges, states should move toward more nimble systems of education financing. Funding students directly through a system of education scholarship accounts would do just that.