Concerned About Learning Loss? Let Funding Follow Students

  • December 11, 2023
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Colleen Hroncich

It looks like last month’s New York Times editorial on learning loss struck some nerves. Over the weekend, the paper ran a handful of letters in response, including my own. What stood out to me the most about the editorial was the call to double down on things that clearly haven’t been working.

Like many pieces about how students are struggling these days, the editors called for more money. But they first acknowledged Congress has sent public schools an additional $190 billion dollars since the pandemic. This aid came on top of the hundreds of billions already spent each year by public schools. In 2019–20, before most COVID-19 aid was distributed, public schools spent $870 billion, or $17,000 per pupil.

Even before the pandemic, public school performance was lackluster at best. But we’re supposed to believe that giving even more money to the same people in the same system will fix things now? It defies logic.

The funding issue isn’t even the biggest head‐​scratcher. The editorial says, “Researchers have long known that American students grow more alienated from school the longer they attend — and that they often fall off the school engagement cliff, at which point they no longer care.” But later it argues that “measures to increase the time that students spend in school— such as after‐​school programs and summer school — will be required to help the students who have fallen furthest behind.” Once again, the “solution” is more of the same, despite acknowledging it might exacerbate the problem.

The reality is that one size does not fit all where education is concerned. That’s why a government‐​mandated, top‐​down approach can’t fix the problems we see in education. Instead of just funding a school system, we need school choice programs where education dollars follow students to the learning environments that meet their individual needs.

Interestingly, this solution—funding students instead of just a system—will address many of the issues raised by the other responses to the Times’ editorial. One letter said students need “active, engaged, meaningful and socially interactive classrooms.” With school choice, teachers can create the classrooms of their dreams and parents can choose them for their children.

Other letters talked about tutoring programs and extra‐​curricular activities. An education savings account (ESA) that allows parents or guardians to direct education funding to a variety of educational options would enable families to take advantage of tutoring if that’s what their child needs. Some may even help fund certain extra‐​curricular activities.

One teacher responded to the editorial by chastising the paper for pushing larger classes with excellent teachers, while another said teachers need higher pay and students need more engaging curriculum. With school choice, teachers across the country are opening microschools and tutoring centers, and parents are flocking to them. I’ve talked to many teachers who are making more money in their new microschool, but they say the improved environment is an even bigger benefit.

Finally, one of the responses mentioned special education. Many school choice programs start out targeted just to students with special needs because they have the clearest need for individualized educational support. I’ve also talked to parents and teachers who have seen children move beyond their original diagnoses by finding the right learning environments.

As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Pouring more money into the system and making children spend more time there isn’t what’s needed. It is individual children who are struggling, so they need individual—not system-focused—help.

The good news is that policymakers are increasingly recognizing this. In 2023, seven states enacted new school choice programs and ten expanded existing programs. Before the pandemic, there were no states with universal choice and now there are ten. Happily, thirteen states have ESAs that allow parents to use funds on expenses beyond just private school tuition, which means they can customize their children’s educational experiences.

School choice isn’t a panacea for all our educational woes. But it’s a necessary first step. Equipping parents to get their children into a learning environment that works for them can help put them on a path to a brighter future. We’ve spent a lot of time and money on the system‐​focused approach. Let’s try focusing on the kids now.