Soon after the coronavirus school closures began in March, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, predicted the shutdowns could, “bring about profound changes in how we school our children.” Khan continued, “In the coming year, students and teachers may need to break down barriers between in-person and at-home schooling, and be ready to shift from one to the other with little notice.”
With parents and students frustrated with this spring’s remote education challenges and teachers wary about returning to classrooms, states and school districts are reluctant to definitively announce plans for educating public school students this fall. Many districts are mulling three scenarios: (1) fully reopen schools with social distancing and sanitizing measures in place, (2) continue distance learning, or (3) introduce a hybrid scenario, with students taking some of their classes at home and others at school. In addition, education policymakers predict localized 14- to 28-day rolling school closures in response to future COVID-19 outbreaks, the scenario predicted by Khan.
As public school systems are wont to do, districts have declared that they absolutely must receive more funding in order to open in the fall. According to the lobbyists for district superintendents, the cost to comply with CDC safety recommendations is too prohibitive for schools to provide in-person classes:
“There are some saying, ‘It’s early, but I have to tell you, I don’t see how we could possibly open without additional funds,'” Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says. “It’s becoming an overwhelming problem and many districts are considering returning to distance learning.”
If school districts do not receive the additional federal funding they insist they must have to reopen and schools remain closed again in the fall, many parents and students may choose to withdraw their child from the system. Even if schools do reopen, 40% of parents (50% of Black parents) recently indicated that they are more likely homeschool or enroll their child in a virtual school after the COVID-19 lockdowns end.
Parents recognize that the remote education provided by government schools this spring was neither virtual education – most districts intentionally did not provide direct instruction – or true homeschooling. Unlike traditional homeschooling, parents were not in charge of their children’s curriculum and did not plan for their child’s education experience. According to an experienced homeschooler, “Lack of autonomy, lack of preparation, and lack of options don’t lend themselves to a successful experience. Going into homeschool with intention and preparation makes all the difference.” Fortunately, parents interested in truly homeschooling can learn more from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) website, as well as webinars and resources provided by state and local homeschool associations. In addition, National School Choice Week provides state-by-state information about virtual education and other educational options.
As they plan for the upcoming school year, parents disappointed with their district’s remote education or wary about the uncertainty anticipated for the 2020-21 school year deserve access to the funds designated for educating their child. The public school system spends an average of $15,424 per student annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. What if parents could access a portion of their child’s education funds to directly support their child’s educational needs?
A handful of states already provide educational savings accounts (ESA) to families. The state deposits funding for qualified children in an account that parents access for curriculum, online learning programs, private tutoring, educational therapies, tuition and fees, etc. Twenty-six states provide scholarship programs for lower-income families and students with special needs. Additional states should embrace and expand these programs.
Fortunately, additional educational freedom policies have been proposed in the aftermath of the coronavirus-induced school closures. Texas may offer summer catch-up grants to parents of students with special needs. The Heritage Foundation has proposed a COVID-19 education refund providing, “restricted-use education savings account that parents could use to pay for virtual tutors, online learning, textbooks, curriculums, diagnostic tests, and other products and services, in order to maintain education continuity for their children during this crisis.” Some governors plan to use federal emergency education funding to expand virtual education options in their states.
As school districts dither about the 2020-21 school year plans, parents can take control of their children’s educational future. To ensure education funding follows the child, rather than an inflexible and unreliable education system, parents should demand access to their child’s education funds and support state and local policies that allow parents to use the funding earmarked for their child’s education.