With three children in three different schools, Natalie Wallace has experienced the struggles of education in the COVID era. She sees kids — her own and her friends’ — falling behind academically, socially, and emotionally. These changes have been particularly hard on children with special needs, like Natalie’s son, who is blind. And parents are struggling as they juggle varying school schedules with their own jobs and often face increased costs from remote schooling. Now more than ever, Natalie says it’s time to support parents and students directly.
The varied responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have shone a spotlight on the need for more options and increased flexibility in K-12 education. Some families want to remain remote, others prefer a hybrid approach, and still others want their children to return to the classroom full time. Similarly, while some teachers want to stay virtual, many are ready to be back in the classroom. Education has never been one size fits all, but that’s even more true as we continue to grapple with COVID-19.
If we funded students instead of school systems, both parents and teachers could make the choices that work for them.
Our current education system has proven to be too inflexible to meet these diverse needs. And kids are paying the highest price. When states ordered schools to close last March, hardly anyone expected it to last the rest of the school year. No one predicted thousands of schools would still be closed a whole year later.
Clearly, children are suffering from prolonged school closures. For most kids, school is as much a social experience as an academic one. While some are flourishing with the flexibility and independence they’ve found with remote education, too many are struggling academically and emotionally.
Unfortunately, since most children are locked into a bureaucratic education system, fierce battles have ensued over reopening schools. Teachers union leaders have called parents who want their kids to be in school “jerks” and said that parents just want babysitters. Meanwhile, teachers who believe in-person education is essential have started their own groups to advocate for open schools. And parents have resorted to forming political action committees, holding rallies, and lobbying elected officials in an effort to ensure their children receive a decent education.
It doesn’t need to be this contentious. In a free society, parents should be able to choose in-person, remote, or hybrid schooling for their children. And teachers should be able to choose to work at a school that is in-person, remote, or hybrid. If we funded students instead of school systems, both parents and teachers could make the choices that work for them.
That’s why Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) have reintroduced the Support Children Having Open Opportunities for Learning (SCHOOL) Act. This legislation recognizes that individual children have individual needs, so it would ensure federal education funding follows children to the public school, private school, or home school they attend. For students who opt out of public schools, funds would be placed in education savings accounts (ESAs) that could be used for a variety of educational needs, such as curriculum, tutoring, tuition, and therapies for students with disabilities. Importantly, the SCHOOL Act doesn’t increase federal involvement in education; it merely shifts the focus of money that is already being spent.
By funding students, the SCHOOL Act would help parents choose the educational environment that works best for their children rather than leaving them at the mercy of the local bureaucracy. Empowering parents to make these decisions would greatly diffuse the battles around reopening. This would help students, parents, and teachers.
The good news is that providing these options is popular with parents and the general public. Last fall, a survey conducted by EdChoice found that 86 percent of current school parents favor ESAs.
The widespread support for direct funding to families doesn’t surprise Natalie Wallace. Her son who is blind needs specialized equipment to successfully learn remotely. Through a nonprofit she started to help children with special needs, she talks to many parents who are dealing with similar challenges. Last October, Wallace testified before the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee about the urgency of providing ESAs to children so they can get individualized help to recover from COVID-related disruptions.
Parents shouldn’t have to start PACs or become lobbyists to get their children educated. By funding students instead of systems, we can give parents a stronger voice when it comes to their children’s future.
Colleen Hroncich is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation.