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School Choice Week: Pandemic opens window of opportunity for students, parents

The coronavirus pandemic has created a window of opportunity for school choice, says a panel of experts at a John Locke Foundation Shaftesbury. 

School choice advocates want to upend education funding. They hope to tie funding to students instead of public-school systems, and they believe historic levels of learning loss could fuel their reforms. 

They hope to use education savings accounts — or publicly funded savings accounts that pay for government-approved education expenditures — to combat learning loss and help students succeed. 

The John Locke Foundation hosted a Shaftesbury with Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation; Robert Luebke, senior fellow at the Center for Effective Education; and Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of the Center for Effective Education. 

They met Monday, Jan. 25, during School Choice Week. The week is dedicated to shining a light on effective education options for children and is the world’s largest celebration of opportunity in K-12 education, the School Choice Week website says. 

In North Carolina, public schools have been partially closed since March. But private schools have been open for in-person learning since July. Learning has divided down class lines. Those who can pay for private schools can enjoy in-person learning. Those who can’t remain stuck in virtual learning. 

In North Carolina, Republicans have pushed to reopen classrooms. But teacher advocacy groups have opposed returning to the classroom during the pandemic, and Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper has moved slower than Republicans want. 

“The problem here is the uneven power dynamic between the monopolies and individual families. The way to fix that dynamic is to have the money follow the child,” DeAngelis said. “School choice is a rising tide that lifts all boats through competitive pressures.”

Students have suffered in public schools. Remote learning was a disaster. Almost one in five students stopped regularly attending class, and experts expect historic levels of learning loss. 

But that damage could fuel school choice, experts also say.

“Parents who never thought they would need school choice now realize they desperately do,” said Stoops. 

Public support for school choice has jumped since the pandemic began. Support for funding students directly has risen by 10% from April to August, from 67% of public school parents in April to 77% in August, according to a survey by Real Clear Opinion. 

Stoops wants to use education savings accounts to combat learning loss. The state would fund the accounts, and parents could choose how to spend the money on state-approved educational services, including tutoring or therapy. 

The state has not yet released a plan for combatting learning loss. Time is critical to reverse learning loss, especially for younger students, says Stoops. 

“The state really doesn’t have a plan, right now, to deal with learning loss,” said Stoops. “There’s going to be a desperate yearning for some sort of school choice program that will help children.”

But any legislative bills will face the governor, who has criticized school choice programs. Republicans lack the votes to override his vetoes unless they can garner support from across the aisle. School choice is also embroiled in a lawsuit. 

Advocates for school choice usually face pushback from critics who accuse them of wanting to defund public schools. But DeAngelis compared school funding to food stamps, housing vouchers, and higher education — all of which allow people to choose how to spend government dollars. 

“We’re in a window of opportunity,” Luebke said. “Parents have become teachers, they’re tearing their hair out, saying this doesn’t work. ESAs can provide a real solution for a lot of those people. They allow parents to meet the needs of their child and put them in the learning environment that’s best for them.”

Monday, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, and 22 of his colleagues introduced a resolution declaring this week as National School Choice Week, a news release says.

“School choice provides families across North Carolina, and the country, the option to enroll their children in a school that best fits the educational and social needs of that individual child,” Tillis says in the release. “Allowing parents to choose where they want their child to learn, instead of the district making that decision based on zip codes, should be commonsense for my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”