Coronavirus, Education, Exclusives, Uncategorized

Johnson: COVID restrictions show need to broaden educational choice

Open the schools”, Dr. Fauci said recently speaking with a concurring Governor Polis, echoing what so many of us are pleading. Why then have many Colorado school districts mandated remote learning through early January and beyond?

We’re all trying to make this work. And while Polis is urging schools to open, he’s added complexity and confusion with the fluctuating quarantine guidelines that impact staffing. Two things are for certain: 1) Our kids are suffering potential long-term academic, mental, and emotional damage from remote learning, and 2) We need to broaden educational choice.

 Damage from remote learning

Children’s academic performance deteriorates with remote learning. Districts across Colorado and the country are seeing a significant drop in student grades and attendance. Just one in five teachers say they’re teaching the same amount of content as last year. And once kids get behind, data show that it’s very hard for them to catch-up—risking long-lasting harm.

Alarmingly, remote learning is also widening the achievement gap. Academic deterioration—poor grades, quality of remote teaching, and attendance—has been most pronounced in low-income and struggling learners, setting these children back even further.

In addition, mental health-related emergency room visits are up 25 to 30% for children. We all hear the stories of kids breaking down crying after hours of staring frustratingly at the screen.

Importantly, children are at extremely low health risk from this virus and studies show schools are not super-spreaders. European schools have largely remained open and haven’t contributed to a rise in cases with similar studies corroborating this in the U.S. In fact, the CDC says schools are one of the safest places for children.

Focused protection for teachers is important, especially for those in more vulnerable categories. Can the more vulnerable teach remotely to families who choose that option, while the rest teach in person? Can we increase the number of substitute teachers by jumpstarting the careers of teachers-in-training?

The science is showing our kids desperately need in-person learning and can do so responsibly. If our school boards refuse, then it’s one more reason to broaden educational choice and ensure our tax dollars fund the student, not the institution.

Expand educational choice

What’s abundantly clear is that a “one size fits all” education approach doesn’t serve families well, especially when schools are unnecessarily shut down. Indeed, since April support for school choice has risen to 77% among parents with children in public schools. But regardless of when public schools re-open, broader educational choice will benefit students, families, and the community.

Colorado’s public-school choice is not the problem. We have healthy charter school and open enrollment policies. However, this is only a portion of what educational choice should be. When it comes to broader educational choice in Colorado, we’re short-changing our kids and restricting families from making the best decisions for their children.

True educational choice means parents can choose the type of school and learning format that works best for their children. To achieve that, public funds ear-marked for education need to follow the student. Vouchers and tax credits are examples of this—giving funds that would’ve been spent on kids’ public education back to the parents and empowering them to use those for private school and tutors.

Crucially, broader school choice narrows the achievement gap and provides competition that improves public schools. It’s clear that broadening choice will yield far better results than shoveling ever more tax-payer money into our public-school system.

After witnessing the devastating academic, social, and emotional impact of these shutdowns, will Colorado school boards and government officials be more willing to transfer choice to families? If so, an innovative new funding mechanism can supercharge true educational choice.

Education Savings Accounts

This program is called an Education Savings Account, or ESA (not to be confused with Coverdell or 529 college savings accounts). With an ESA, the child opts out of full-time public school and the state deposits a portion of the funds allocated to the child’s public education into a private account. Parents can then use these funds to pay for private school tuition, curriculum for home-schooling or learning pods, online classes, tutors, and other education-related services. This empowers parents to tailor their children’s education to their unique learning style, academic needs, and education goals. Now that’s how you fund the student!

Five states currently employ ESAs and their popularity is growing due to the personalization, strong academic results, and educational freedom they’re generating for students and families.

ESAs also benefit taxpayers. While funding varies by state, in most cases ESAs are funded at lower amounts than what we’d pay for the student’s public-school education. A more efficient and effective education for lower cost to the taxpayer? Yes, please!

But wait, it gets better! School districts can actually receive higher funding per pupil due to ESAs. In these cases, the school district preserves a significant portion of the savings generated from ESA enrollments. Those funds spread out over fewer students means more funding per pupil for the district—easing budget constraints.

Innovative and improved educational choice for families, savings for taxpayers, and more money per pupil for school-districts—what’s stopping Colorado from adopting ESAs?

We need to open the schools back up to minimize long-lasting damage to our children. But whether it’s because of school shutdowns or parents unhappy with deteriorating public-school curriculum and quality, more educational choice is essential for our children to thrive. To fuel that, let’s embrace innovative mechanisms like ESAs to empower families and enrich our communities.

Will Johnson writes frequently on Colorado issues.  He lives in Highlands Ranch.

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