Virginia quietly lowered proficiency standards on state assessments in 2019 and 2020, deceiving public school parents in the commonwealth into thinking their children were learning math and reading. The state’s abysmal and embarrassing 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores revealed the truth.
Unfortunately, Virginia also lags far behind other states in education freedom, so students are trapped in schools that are failing them. The good news is that help in the form of education savings accounts is on the way.
Virginia’s students must be allowed to escape the residentially assigned public schools that are not educating them. Fortunately, Del. Glenn Davis recently introduced legislation that will provide K-12 Education Success Accounts (HB 1508) to eligible Virginia families. This proposal creates education savings accounts (ESAs) for families by setting aside roughly one-third of the per-pupil funding allocated for each student. Parents will be able to direct the ESA funds for allowable education expenses, including tuition, educational therapies, tutoring, transportation and curriculum.
The education savings account proposal would provide approximately $4,500 each year for each child. Public school and rising kindergarten students who are not already enrolled in a private school or homeschool would be eligible to leave the public school system and access ESAs.
Ten states already have education savings account programs in place. In Arizona, every K-12 student in the state is eligible for an ESA, and over 45,000 students are benefiting from the program. West Virginia recently launched an ESA program that is open to more than 90% of the student population.
Students suffering from the learning loss crisis created by Virginia’s public school system deserve alternative educational options. Back in 2017, before the Virginia State Board of Education lowered state reading standards, 43% of fourth-grade students tested at the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. While not an impressive percentage, it was well above the 2017 national average of 35% proficient. According to 2022 NAEP results, only 32% of both the nation’s and Virginia’s students are currently proficient readers.
Virginia’s public school leaders can’t blame “the pandemic” alone for the learning loss crisis, although their pandemic-era policies certainly accelerated a disaster already in progress. The state’s 13.6-point drop in average fourth-grade NAEP reading scores since 2017 was the largest in the nation. When school board members and superintendents closed schools for longer periods than 43 other states, they exacerbated a decline initiated by lowered academic standards.
Virginia residents pride themselves in the “good” schools their children attend. Parents in Northern Virginia regularly pay over $1 million for their homes in order to live in “top” school districts. Many parents with crippling mortgages are reluctant to admit their “excellent” schools have failed to teach their children reading and math. They might not realize that Virginia’s reading and math standards are the lowest in the nation. But when state NAEP scores reveal that only one-third of the state’s 9-year-olds can read and answer math questions with confidence, parents and policymakers must acknowledge that the state’s public schools are clearly failing not just some, but the majority of students.
Virginia’s state assessment results revealed that younger students and Black, Hispanic and low-income students, as well as English learners and students with disabilities, are especially struggling. A fall 2021 study of Virginia students revealed that early reading skills are at an “alarming” 20-year low. According to statewide testing, 34.5% of K-2 students were at high risk for persistent reading difficulties, in contrast to only 21.3% in 2019.
Parents of struggling readers know that their child deserves an alternative path to educational achievement. So do parents of students who have not acquired fundamental math skills, who are mercilessly bullied, or whose special needs are ignored and services are denied.
Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears has expressed strong support for HB 1508, declaring at a news conference announcing the legislation that, “Rich parents are not waiting on a government program to decide where to send their children. They’ve already made that choice.” The lieutenant governor knows that lower- and middle-income families have been hardest hit by Virginia’s learning loss crisis. They couldn’t afford the tutors and teacher-led learning pods that wealthy families invested in during lengthy school closures.
Parents need Gov. Glenn Youngkin and members of Virginia’s General Assembly to speak on their behalf and advocate for education savings accounts. Education savings accounts will empower parents to direct their child’s education funding toward the educational option that best meets their needs. Virginia students deserve a path out of the learning loss crisis created by the public school system and the opportunity to thrive.