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Minnesota has an opportunity to help more families access the education options they are interested in

As school districts announce changes in their educational delivery models and shift to less in-person instruction, Minnesota has an opportunity to help families access alternative learning options that they are showing interest in.

With uncertainty looming over when distance learning might end, parents are concerned about the negative impacts continued school closures will have on their children. According to the Center’s latest Thinking Minnesota Poll, one in four parents say they have looked outside public schools to find the in-person learning experience they want for their kids.

For the schools who have moved from some variation of in-person to hybrid to distance learning, it’s unlikely the learning model will be changed before 2021, reports the Star Tribune. And students will pay the price. As my colleague Tom Steward wrote here, the St. Paul school district is just one example of a failed experiment in virtual learning, as the number of failing grades has doubled in its high schools. With the local teachers’ union pushing back on prioritizing in-person instruction since before the school year began, it appears parents may see more dire outcomes, Steward concludes.

All the more reason to fund students instead of systems.

According to a national online survey of over 1,000 respondents conducted the end of September by Heart + Mind Strategies, 66 percent of parents with children at home think that the money should follow the child in education. This could take a couple of different forms in Minnesota.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)

ESAs are accounts that families can use to help pay for a variety of education-related products and services. A handful of states already provide ESAs to families by depositing a portion of government funding that parents can then access to directly support their children’s customized educational needs. Minnesota could easily embrace this program and help families from all backgrounds give their children the education experience that best sets them up for success. ESAs help families choose multiple learning options simultaneously and are different from vouchers and tax-credit scholarships.

Special Education Savings Accounts

Operated just like the above listed ESAs, special education savings accounts would be geared toward students on Individualized Education Plans or receiving other special education-related services. Given the fact that many of Minnesota’s most vulnerable children are not getting the services they need, the state could allocate a portion of funds to parents so they could access tutors, specialized therapists, or other assistance that a district under a distance learning model cannot provide. Special education savings accounts could also help alleviate the budgetary constraints districts are expected to face.

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A separate online survey of just over 2,000 respondents conducted the beginning of November by Heart + Mind Strategies found that 57 percent of voters believe every child deserves a chance at the best possible education, including getting additional support outside of the public school system or getting their entire education elsewhere. This could take a couple of different forms in Minnesota.

Virtual Charter Schools

Unlike distance learning models that brick-and-mortar school districts have implemented, virtual schools specialize in online learning. They have curriculum designed and teachers trained to provide services and engage students from a distance. By opening the doors wide to virtual charter schools, we could introduce more flexibility and innovation into our education system.

Full School Choice

Through tax-credit scholarships and other related scholarship programs, all interested Minnesota families would be able to choose an alternative to the neighborhood public schools and not have financial barriers prevent students most in need of new opportunities from accessing them. According to a Center Thinking Minnesota Poll conducted in September 2019, 75 percent of Minnesotans support allowing students in low-performing public school districts to attend a public or private school of their choice instead of the school they are assigned.

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