Governments should take some of their education budget and send money directly to parents to help with the switch to online learning

  • During the pandemic, parents have been finding themselves working less and teaching more, as school closures have kept their children home.
  • These parents deserve to get some of the governments education funding to help ease the transtition.
  • We need to put our kids in the forefront of the conversation, and let parents decide their educational paths.
  • Karol Markowicz is a writer living in Brooklyn. .
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“What are you doing about school?” It’s a question every parent in America has heard or answered this question in recent months: “What are you doing about school?”

We all pretend there’s a good choice or a real answer. But as schools across the country plan an all-remote opening or a hybrid model with some in-person learning coupled with online learning, most parents know there is not.

What kids are doing about school depends very much on the wealth of their parents, now more than ever. But should it?

An educational class divide

With the upcoming school year still very much in flux, parents across the country will have to step in to pick up the educational slack left by school systems in disarray. 

Parents will be forced to make an impossible choice: pause their careers and play administrative assistant to their kids while they learn via computer. Or don’t and leave their kids on their own with potentially harmful consequences. 

Some parents are setting up so-called “pods” to have their children either do distance learning, or actual homeschool, alongside a small group of other children. The idea is to give their kids some social interaction while mimicking at least some aspects of school.

The rich, of course, have many options. Their pods will likely consist of an in-person tutor who will work with the group to complete their schoolwork as they watch live instruction or videos from their actual school. Some will have the tutor design the curriculum themselves and form their own homeschool.

Other wealthy families will stay at their summer homes if schools are opening there. Or they’ll have the choice of private schools which have a far better chance than public schools of opening in the fall.

But for the vast majority of families, this school year will be an educational disaster. The achievement gap between rich and poor kids is expected to widen significantly

To fight this educational inequality, a growing movement is demanding that if schools don’t open that the money spent per student be returned to the parents to use as they see fit. If parents don’t like the plan proposed by their public school, why should they not be able to take their child’s funds and spend that money on the education of their choice?

Giving parents flexibility

This month, Senator Rand Paul introduced the Support Children Having Open Opportunities for Learning (SCHOOL) Act which would send the federal funds spent on schools directly to parents to spend as they wish. It’s a good idea but it’s likely not enough. 

Corey A. DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, told me these federal funds make up about 9% of total education spending. If all federal funds were diverted directly to parents, families in the northeast of the country — which has the highest per student spending in the country with an average of nearly $20,000 — would see around $1,800. That’s certainly a start but nowhere near enough  for parents to effectively supplement their child’s lacking education. 

And parents in other regions would see even less. Parents in the South — where funding per child averages around $10,000 — would only receive $900.

Given the limited amount of federal funding, much of the interesting work on directly funding “students, not systems,” as DeAngelis says, is happening on the state level. 

In Colorado, their legislature asked Gov. Jared Polis to convene a special session specifically to discuss educational concerns. The  policy proposal by Colorado Republicans called “Safe Learning Choices” argues families are “entitled to all or a portion of their child’s per-pupil revenue to access the educational resources they need to thrive during the pandemic.”

DeAngelis told me “State constitutions require governments to provide ‘free’ public education. It’s hard for states to say they’re doing that if they aren’t even reopening schools.”

With many teachers asking for medical accommodations, which will mean only getting a portion of their pay under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools will see some savings. Instead of diverting any of those funds to other programs, they must be passed on to parents to give them educational options. Local and state governments have to find the money as well. Education is mandatory and if it’s not being provided by the public schools parents should be able to get it elsewhere.

We already know we need more options

No one wants to see kids left behind because their parents couldn’t afford to skip work to help them with distance learning. We’ve already seen the harm caused by just a few months of this kind of schooling and studies show this set up can leave many students behind

During the Spring, reports from parents about how distance learning was failing children were largely dismissed. After all, we were in a time where our tagline was “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Everyone thought it was temporary. 

 But as those two weeks kept getting extended provided, it was clear that many school systems were unprepared for the massive online shift.. I spoke to parents, at some of the best public schools in New York City, who did not have one instance of live online instruction during the spring semester.

Parents shouldn’t be forced into another year of potentially lacking schooling just because they don’t have the money for a private tutor or tuition for a private school. Schools which are not providing the service for which they are being paid should not continue to receive full funding. It shouldn’t only be rich kids who have options. 

Taking politics out of the decision

Some politicians may balk because the idea of school choice is seen as a conservative position, but the challenge right now is to depoliticize the issue of school funding for the good of the children. In normal times that would be an impossible task, but the unprecedented circumstances mean there’s a chance. 

Democrats can help shape the debate instead of shutting it down. They can help answer questions on how these funds can be used. What accreditation should be required for a teacher hired using this money? How can homeschooling parents prove how this money gets spent? 

They can also force a time limit on these funds. Give parents access to these funds in the short term and see how it goes. If children thrive, why would we go back to the old system? If they don’t, we can have an end date to the plan and return money to the schools. 

Parents won’t wait for their government to do the right thing for them. School districts around the country are already in the situation of asking parents to not un-enroll their children. Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia sent a letter to parents saying they are experiencing “a rise in families deciding to leave the system until we are either back in person or there is a vaccine to fight the virus” and that “If there is an exodus of students from FCCPS, the funding for our schools will decrease.” 

Similarly, The Denver Public Schools Board of Education discouraged parents from unenrolling their children and forming pods. “It’s also important to recognize the impact of unenrolling children from their school and/or hiring private teachers. We are deeply concerned about the pods’ long-term negative implications for public education and social justice.”

They’re not wrong about these negative implications but their solution — to keep all children in non-optimal learning conditions — is untenable. Parents who can afford private tutors will still opt out or use their money to gain access to the tools to make online learning work for them. We need to afford less privileged children that same opportunity. 

COVID-19 has forced us to make difficult choices and so many parents have lopsidedly bore the brunt of that. We need to put children at the forefront of the school conversation and let their parents decide how best to educate them. Fund students not pre-COVID ideas on what schools should be.

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