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The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, recently released detailed survey findings on K-12 student learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic when thousands of public schools were closed to in-person learning. The survey also documented efforts at remedial education, which have been insufficient, and that bodes ill for America’s K-12 students.
These IES findings further demonstrate systemic change in the K-12 public school monopoly is needed, and it begins with financially empowering parents to enroll their children in schools that work best for their child’s specific needs – public, private or religious. This will bring new accountability, higher academic performance, better outcomes, and necessary competition. Numerous studies have demonstrated these results (e.g., here).
Students suffering academically and emotionally from COVID-19 is not a new story. Parents throughout the nation understood just months into the pandemic that their children were being harmed by public school closures and forced virtual learning. Consider some of the findings of the IES survey:
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- Public school leaders estimated that about half — 49 percent — of their students began the 2022-23 year behind grade level in at least one academic subject.
- Fewer than half of the school leaders surveyed said they’ve increased the number of students participating in “high dosage” tutoring this school year over 2021-22.
- About 40 percent of schools also said they can’t find the time in their regular school schedule to tutor students, nor can they find qualified staff (or lack the money to pay them) to sustain either regular or high dosage tutoring programs.
To climb back from this learning loss will take much more than money, which the U.S. Congress already provided aplenty with nearly $200 billion added for K-12 education during its pandemic spending spree in 2020 and 2021.
Since 2021, more than half the states enacted or expanded education freedom policies to financially equip parents to choose their own school or education service. A handful of states are stand-outs by providing education savings accounts for most parents of school-age children, including in Arizona, West Virginia, Iowa, and Utah.
Still, more must be done to remedy the learning loss documented in the IES findings. If Congress and the Biden administration can add nearly a quarter trillion dollars to education, they should also empower parents to shop for better, more responsive, and accountable K-12 education for their children at a small fraction of that expense.
The Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA) proposed in Congress by Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska would enhance tax incentives for charitable donations to generate up to $10 billion in privately funded K-12 scholarship opportunities across the 50 states. It requires no new federal money and up to two million children would benefit.
The widespread availability of these scholarships would turn every parent into a consumer of education, able to potentially “shop” for another school or education service to meet their child’s needs.
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Importantly, scholarships made available by the ECCA will fund tuition and other education services akin to 529 plans that exist for higher education, including tutoring to address learning loss, online courses, special needs services, educational software and more. For many parents, these supplemental services would fill the void in their child’s education if they chose to remain in a district school.
The ECCA gives parents a desired alternative and would force school boards and teachers’ unions to face a new reality of having to respond favorably to, and compete for, parent customers or risk a school exodus. This shift in the power dynamic toward parents is what boards and unions fear so much, which is why they oppose education freedom policies at every turn.
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The K-12 public education system in the U.S. is a vast monopoly of underperformance at exorbitant expense. Systemic change is needed if we are going to rescue millions of children from learning loss and curriculum distractions pervasive in district-run schools.
Fortunately, parents and legislators throughout the country are acting by expanding education freedom for K-12 families, and it’s time for Congress join in. With the latest survey findings by the IES, there is no time to lose since America’s future much depends on today’s classrooms.
Peter Murphy is Senior Advisor for Policy at Invest in Education.