It’s Time to Put Power Back in the Hands of Parents

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It’s National School Choice Week and, with 14 states debating school choice legislation, there’s never been a better time for American families who are seeking more education options for their children. However, for many American families, the outlook remains bleak. Forced school closures and a transition to remote learning found teachers, parents, and kids alike underprepared for the biggest disruption to American education in history, one that’s rapidly leaving an entire generation behind.

Faced with a stark choice, school boards in Las Vegas are speeding up school re-openings after a spike in student suicides and mental health alerts. By December 2020, 18 children in Las Vegas had taken their own lives. It’s hard to link all of these to the isolation and disruption in regular social and academic life that school closures caused, but it’s not hard to see how they are a primary factor.

Aledo, Texas father Brian Hunstable made a video in April 2020, just days after burying his son Hayden, saying “my son died from the coronavirus.. [but] not in the way you think.” Hayden missed playing sports and seeing his friends. He was a few days shy of 13 when ended his life. 

Even for those kids who haven’t faced such dire consequences, being forced to stare at a screen for hours at a time has made it difficult for many to remain motivated and engaged learners. Screens cause headaches, anxiety, and exhaustion. It’s clear that this “new normal” isn’t working for many kids and the current paradigm of public education is failing them.

Faced with this, many families have withdrawn students from their school in favor of those staying open. Elsewhere, many have chosen to home-school their kids full-time, or have joined other families to form “home-school pods” to share the burden while replicating the social experience and normalcy of classrooms. Gaining traction, too, are innovations like hybrid homeschooling or micro-schools, whereby organizations or independent teachers work with parents to provide a flexible education that replicates the social support network and experience of a traditional school.

However, not all families can afford these options. Lower-income families lack the resources, having already lost access to some of the social services that public schools provide. Many can’t take time off work to help their child or ensure that their children keep pace with online learning

To be clear, many school leaders, teachers, and support staff have gone beyond the call during this pandemic to support their kids. They’ve hounded kids who have stopped engaging with remote learning, set up alternative means to distribute free lunches, and so much more. We should commend their efforts.

However, this is insufficient. Students in high-poverty areas are especially likely to be learning remotely, despite also being disproportionately more likely to struggle with it. This is doubly frustrating since research shows that public school reopening decisions are being made for political rather than science or public health reasons. Areas with powerful teachers’ unions are more likely to see public schools remain closed regardless of community spread.

A Virginian teachers’ union representative recently announced that teachers won’t be showing up for full-time instruction next fall even if they’re vaccinated against Covid-19, even though virus spread among schoolchildren is very low.

These events are underserving public schools students and their families. They need empowerment—not just through ‘school choice’, which allows a portion of public monies to flow to a private, charter, or homeschool of their choice—but through complete education choice, allowing parents to spend directly on education-related expenses.

Some states are already considering this. Georgia and Florida, for instance, are debating Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) — parent-controlled accounts that allow public education funds to be spent on anything from private tutoring to schooling resources to therapy.

Besides benefiting families who participate, ESAs could save the state money. Heartland Institute analysis finds that if New Jersey alone enacted ESAs worth $10,000 annually for parents who choose alternative options to their public school, then the state would save $51 million annually if even 1% of students participate. That also means more money and resources for every pupil remaining in public schools since enrollment-contingent per-pupil funding for public schools is greater than the ESA’s value.

But the case for empowering parents and students to navigate education during the pandemic shouldn’t depend on numbers. It’s simply the right thing to do, and it could save, or at least greatly impact, the lives of many who’ve been betrayed by the rigid way we currently do public education.

SatyaMarar
Satya Marar is a Washington DC-based policy analyst and freelance writer whose writing on education policy has appeared in The Hill, Washington Examiner, The Tennessean, South Florida Sun Sentinel and American Spectator. He is a senior contributor and education policy fellow at Young Voices, and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws with honors from Macquarie University.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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