Learning loss education savings accounts: an idea whose time has come

Students and instructors at a Durham Public Schools STEM event, February 2020. (Photo from Durham Public Schools media kit)
Students and instructors at a Durham Public Schools STEM event, February 2020. (Photo from Durham Public Schools media kit)

After almost a year of being out of school, in a different school, or in no school at all, children and parents are embracing the opportunity to return to in-person instruction full time. Underneath all that enthusiasm, however, is an important yet unanswered question: how much learning have students lost because of the pandemic?

Results from recent snapshots of student progress are not encouraging. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt has reported 23% of North Carolina school district students are at risk for academic failure and haven’t made sufficient progress to be promoted to the next grade. The number of students reaching proficiency in math, biology, and third grade reading has declined, and the declines cross all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Moreover, the percentage of students who fail to reach proficiency increased from 42% in 2019 to 54% in 2020.

Fortunately, lawmakers are focusing on these problems. North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore introduced legislation to provide at-risk students an opportunity to receive up to six weeks of additional instruction. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger introduced a bill to improve the teaching of reading. The General Assembly passed them overwhelmingly, and Gov. Roy Cooper signed them both. Still, no one expects either law will fully address the scope of the learning loss.

So how does North Carolina address such a daunting challenge? A consensus is emerging that tutoring is the most promising strategy to help students. Significant research (see here and here) shows that tutoring supports improved math and reading outcomes and can also aid social and motivational outcomes. Mark Schneider, director of the Institute for Educational Sciences, recently co-authored a piece with Kumar Garg, managing director of Schmidt Futures, to highlight how tutoring is the best option for redressing learning loss.

The pandemic has exposed the inability of many public school systems to pivot effectively to different educational delivery systems. These realities have fueled parental demand for school choice and more options. These developments present North Carolina with a new opportunity. The disparate impacts of the pandemic argue against a one-size-fits-all approach and for more personalized solutions allowing parents and students to find what works best for them. Tutoring is the answer.

A popular and effective way to empower parents to deliver personalized education options is an Education Savings Account (ESA). ESAs empower parents to access a state-funded account to pay for things like tuition, speech therapy, tutoring, technology, learning camps, or other services.

What would a North Carolina Learning Loss ESA (NC LLESA) look like? Under the NC LLESA, public school students who do not achieve proficiency in math, reading, or science would be eligible to receive funding for additional assistance. Early estimates place that population at about 750,000. If 60% of eligible recipients accessed the program, enrollment would total about 450,000. Providing each of those students with an initial $500 ESA would cost about $225 million, plus about another $1 million for the costs of administration. Parents could use that money for tutoring, learning camps, technology, or other supplemental services.

That’s a lot of money, but there are strong reasons to move forward. First, North Carolina is already receiving $3.6 billion in COVID-19 relief funding under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Initial estimates suggest that between $95 million and $171 million in federal relief money could be used for the NC LLESA. Moreover, if learning loss is deemed a negative economic impact of the pandemic, North Carolina may be able to access an additional $9 billion in state and local relief funding from ARPA. Second, North Carolina already has a popular ESA program in place for special-needs students. As such, the existing administrative infrastructure and guardrails are already in place and can be used to accommodate an expanded population.

But we must act quickly. Dr. Eric Hanushek of Stanford University has estimated that school closures could result in up to $30 trillion in lost economic output in today’s dollars over the next century, and a 6 to 9% reduction in lifetime household income.

The scope of these potential losses is too large to ignore. Learning Loss ESAs are an idea whose time has come.

Dr. Robert Luebke is senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation’s Center for Effective Education.