When 56.4 million American students moved from in-person to online learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, educators feared how the country’s minority and low-income students would fare.

Their concern—that America’s most vulnerable children would fall behind—has become a reality.

About 3 million of the country’s most marginalized students have not experienced any formal education—virtual or in-person—since March 2020, according to last October’s Bellwether Education Partners report.

Non-white children are estimated to fall behind six to 12 months in mathematics compared to four to eight months for white students, according to a December 2020 McKinsey & Co. report.

Brookings also reported that K-12 enrollment dropped nationwide. In Michigan, K-12 enrollment decreased by 53,000 students because many parents opted for homeschooling or held their children back one year before starting kindergarten. Despite this assurance, 13,000 Michigan children are “fully unaccounted for,” Michigan’s Superintendent Michael Rice said.

Seemingly in response to this crisis, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, the largest influx of federal education dollars in American history, to restore education gaps caused by state lockdowns.

The federal government gave $126 billion to states to reopen schools and help students from low-income families recover from lost instructional time, according to a public policy report from Georgetown University.

School districts plan on using this temporary financial aid to fund teachers and fill budget gaps rather than help students with flexible learning options. School districts will hire more teachers, pay them more money, beef up nonteaching staff and facilities projects, update technology and curriculum, and give teachers additional planning time.

Hiring new staff—additional teachers, counselors, nurses, and specialists—represents unsustainable, hefty recurring costs, according to Edunomics Lab researchers Marguerite Roza, Chad Aldeman, Jessica Swanson, and Katie Silberstein.

“Leaders who commit to things they won’t be able to afford once the money runs out are setting themselves up to fall off a funding cliff in a few years,” Roza and Aldeman wrote in Education Next.

The researchers also said hiring new staff could, ironically, cause staffing shortages. “The number of job openings in public education is outpacing the number of hires employers are able to make,” they wrote.

The researchers found school districts also favor one-size-fits-all models. School districts are less likely to offer tutoring, add weeks to the school year, let school principals decide how to spend funds, and include parents in students’ learning.

Instead of offering one-size-fits-all proposals to address each student’s unique set of needs, school districts should engage with their local communities and find policy solutions local stakeholders support.

They should also revise their plans to offer families greater flexibility and provide targeted learning options for the children who need it most.

Temporary micro-education savings accounts empower parents to spend their dollars on any approved expense, including private tutoring, books, and special education services.  

Implementing temporary micro-education savings accounts will initially work best in states that already have permanent education savings accounts, including Arizona, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

Other states should not lose hope. More than half of the United States, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., already offer flexible options for children, including private school scholarships, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and individual tax credits, according to EdChoice.

Robust education marketplaces are associated with improving student outcomes, and elected leaders are making progress. Legislators have signed nine out of 49 student-centered proposals introduced by 33 states into law.

At the very least, school districts should allow school principals to make spending decisions that tailor resources to the children most affected by pandemic-induced learning loss.  

School district leaders finalizing their American Rescue Plan spending plans should enable parents and educational staff to collaborate together and help get America’s children—our future—back on track.

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