The coronavirus pandemic drastically changed K-12 education, as U.S. public and private schools complied with state-mandated closures a year ago.

As of January, 72% of the nation’s 56.4 million schoolchildren were learning in remote or hybrid models, according to a nationally representative survey of families.

Amid ongoing calls from special-interest groups for continued school closures and teacher priority in vaccination rollout, many families fear that impromptu virtual classrooms do not provide education continuity for their children and worry about mounting learning loss.

In fact, a McKinsey & Co. study released in December found that, on average, K-12 students had lost about three months in math and one and a half months in reading during the pandemic. However, the report indicated that students in grades K-5 could lose five to nine months of learning in mathematics—more than half of a school year—by the end of the school year in June.

The authors also identified significant learning loss among minority students, who are estimated to be between six and 12 months behind.

At the same time, school districts nationwide have noticed massive dips in K-12 enrollment as many students simply did not log into their virtual classrooms. For instance, Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida—the fourth-largest school district in the U.S.—reported that 16,000 fewer students enrolled in the fall of 2020 compared with the previous school year.

>>> What’s the best way for America to reopen and return to business? The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, a project of The Heritage Foundation, assembled America’s top thinkers to figure that out. So far, it has made more than 260 recommendations. Learn more here.

The far-reaching effects of student learning loss can affect students’ long-term life outcomes. According to economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, learning loss could drastically affect the lifetime earnings of students.

For instance, the lifetime earnings of students that lose one-third of a year of learning could be reduced by 3%, whereas students affected by a year of learning loss could see their lifetime earnings reduced by more than 9%.

The pandemic’s effects on schooling only exacerbate preexisting problems in K-12 education. For example, the achievement gap—the difference in academic outcomes between students from families in the top and bottom deciles of income distribution on nationally normed tests—has not narrowed since 1965 despite the federal government spending $2 trillion on K-12 education. Harvard’s Paul  Peterson described the gap as “amazingly unwavering.”

Greater access to various education options—such as private and charter schools, open enrollment or homeschooling—could help many students regain some of the learning lost during the pandemic.

A recent University of Arkansas report released by education researchers Patrick J. Wolf, Jay P. Greene, Matthew Ladner, and James D. Paul found that greater education freedom is associated with significantly higher math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

For instance, Arizona, which ranked first for the 2021 Combined Education Freedom Index for its robust education marketplace, witnessed impressive National Assessment of Educational Progress gains between 2009 and 2015 on fourth- and eighth-grade exams in math, reading, and science.

The report found that “Arizona students gained between 5 and 11 points on those NAEP tests, while the average national change ranged from a loss of 1 point to a modest gain of 4 points.” Moreover, Arizona was the only state to see statistically significant increases on all its National Assessment of Educational Progress exams.

Similarly, Florida, which offers a vast array of education options, saw remarkable National Assessment of Educational Progress gains among low-income students.

For example, low-income students in fourth grade gained more than a year of learning in reading and more than a year and half in math between 2003 and 2019. By contrast, fourth graders from low-income families nationwide gained less than a year’s worth of learning in both subjects.

At the same time, low-income eighth graders in Florida gained a year or more in reading and math on their National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, while their peers from low-income families nationwide gained less than a year’s worth of learning in those subject areas.

The successes of vibrant education marketplaces have gained the attention of many other states. This year, 29 states have already introduced proposals to expand education options for children through tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and private school scholarships.

Many of these proposals, such as those in New Hampshire and Iowa, specifically aim to help disadvantaged students who are more likely to be affected by learning loss.

State policymakers hope that allowing families to direct where and how their children learn will help students get back on track.

As Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds noted, “If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice.

“School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment.”

More than ever, students will need schooling that responds to their needs. A robust education marketplace can help ensure that students find the school where they can succeed.

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