A ‘recipe for rational government’: Flexibility and choice in education

COVID-19 has disrupted the education landscape as we know it. Schools were shuttered last spring and children transitioned to distance learning. Such adjustments and initial scrambling were inevitable at the time, but knowing what we know now about the virus and how schools aren’t the super-spreaders they were once feared to be, plus the revealed shortcomings of delivering instruction in person, we must respond accordingly for the sake of student health and wellness. According to the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), this includes giving parents the flexibility, funding, and support they need to fulfill the role of primary educator that many have found themselves in as schools remain closed.

In addition to making plans for reopening schools, policymakers and legislators should look to expand options like education savings accounts, which allow families to use funds on any educational purpose. Further, they should be curtailing unproductive “turf wars” between the traditional public, charter, virtual, and private school sectors. Families should be able to do what works best for them during this time.

State leaders and policymakers could use this opportunity to re-center “parents—not politicians, district administrators, or schools—in their rightful place as the directors of their children’s educations,” IWF continues. “The pandemic and shutdowns will impact students and learning for years to come. But if parents and policymakers seize this opportunity to work together and provide more flexibility and options, not all the consequences of the COVID crisis could turn out to be bad ones.”

Frustrations with distance learning

Virtual schools have been in existence pre-COVID and have served many students well through an online learning model. But the implementation of online instruction by brick-and-mortar schools has not measured up. This isn’t to undermine or question the good intentions of those involved in the process but rather to emphasize that distance learning isn’t a great fit for every child. And not all parents are pleased with the teaching material they have discovered is being used (or not used) within school curricula.

If a greater number of students are going to be subject to distance learning for the foreseeable future, and “families are dissatisfied with what’s being provided by the district during this time for any reason, states should be offering school choice options that better suit their needs,” says IWF. “If parents, not schools, are shouldering the real educational and instructional burdens for learning, particularly during this crisis, they should receive the funds taxpayers allocate for that purpose to districts.”

Minnesota can offer families flexibility during this time

Given all the changes and adjustments parents have had to maneuver during the coronavirus, from work schedules to other home responsibilities and monitoring their children’s learning, there are options the state can offer families to “provide more cost-effective educational opportunities without sacrificing academic achievement or social value.” Whether that is through grants, stipends, rebates, or emergency education savings accounts, giving families flexibility during this time not only makes sense to help struggling students but also cash-strapped state legislatures. According to IWF:

Nearly everyone is going to have to figure out how to do more with less, and virtually every state school choice program educates students at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools, some at close to a third of the cost.

With better student outcomes and lower costs to the taxpayer, school choice programs would seem like a no-brainer for these challenging times…

States without those programs should consider creating them for the many families in need, and whose districts are not living up to their obligations in terms of delivering distance learning.

Don’t hamper options

As I mentioned above, 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. “States should not arbitrarily foreclose this option for families by capping enrollment or funding at the behest of unions,” says IWF.