It might be a new year, but remote learning isn’t over. 

As the legislature enters a new session, students are leaving the classroom. Learning is back online in many of the state’s major districts. Learning loss is reaching historic highs, and lawmakers must make sure students aren’t left behind.  

The Republican majority can’t reopen classrooms without the votes to override Gov. Roy Cooper. They have pushed for in-person learning in the past, but the decision remains in the hands of the governor and local districts.  

But they can target learning loss — and pursue other reforms to school funding, teacher pay, and school choice. 

Remote learning was a disaster. Roughly 19% of students stopped attending classes regularly. State officials expect fewer students to graduate or advance to the next grade. The damage will last years, and experts fear it will ripple out into the economy.  

“We don’t know the severity of the learning loss,” said Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of education studies. “But disadvantaged students are more likely to fall behind academically. They’re less likely to graduate and pursue post-secondary education. There’s long-term harm if they don’t reach or exceed grade level in reading and math.”  

The state needs a plan to combat learning loss. Lawmakers should consider extending the school day or school year, as well as offering school choice dollars for tutoring and remedial education, said Stoops. 

“Many of our educators are doing the best they can, there’s no substitute for being in the classroom with kids,” said Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford. “In this time of limited resources, we want to make sure that we use them effectively.” 

Whatever plan is developed will be competing for scarce dollars. The economy can’t support large increases in teacher pay, and state revenue is expected to be tight, says Stoops.  

“It’s a big year, with a lot of uncertainty ahead,” Stoops said. “Any plan that’s developed to address learning loss may come in conflict with the realities of the budget. That’s the overarching issue here: the budget is going to dictate what the General Assembly can and can’t do.” 

Cooper and Republicans will likely continue sparring over school choice, teacher pay, and education funding. The latest budget plan was a casualty of the stalemate over teacher pay and Medicaid expansion. 

Cooper attacked school choice in his August plan. He proposed cutting $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program but pushed to spend $360 million to give public school teachers a $2,000 bonus. 

But while the parties fight over how much to spend, researchers hope lawmakers will reform how the money is spent in the first place. 

The current school funding model is broken. It dates to the Great Depression and is as opaque as it is old. The funding formulas are so confusing it takes administrators two years to understand them.  

“North Carolina’s funding system is a very top down, restrictive model,” said Aaron Smith, Reason Foundation director of education policy. “Now, more than ever, this pandemic has highlighted the need to abandon the antiquated funding model and adopt a model that pushes flexible dollars down to school districts.” 

Lawmakers should make sure the money follows the students, Stoops says. Smith hopes reforming school funding would help districts combat learning loss — and make spending more efficient in tight budget years.  

“There’s no silver bullet,” Smith said. “But if you give them the power to align spending with student needs, at least they’ll be more responsive to student needs, and put the power in the hands of educators.”