April 3, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

COVID-19 has claimed thousands of lives, rocked global economic activity, and shuttered school systems en masse. Yet amid the outbreak of this highly contagious pathogen, one strain of our society has proven wholly immune to its bite: the American spirit of ingenuity—not only in science and supply chains, but also in education. And we must encourage our leaders in K-12 policy to sustain this spirit.

This past week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the creativity of school leaders across the country, who have risen to the current challenge with out-of-the-box thinking like retooling thousands of buses to serve as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to deliver internet connectivity to students in need. 

At the same time, DeVos pitched an idea of “microgrants” to both teachers and students to further support their instruction. As Education Week reported following the White House press conference: “The grants could be used to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring, spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email.”

Regrettably greeted with scorn by union bosses at the National Education Association (NEA), this language largely mirrors the educational flexibility provided by existing education savings account (ESA) programs in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. More importantly, it recognizes that—especially in a time where solutions are being desperately cobbled together based on individual circumstance and need—giving students and educators more opportunities might be a good thing. 

Such a program need not erode the primacy of states and localities in providing K-12 education. Rather, states themselves should look to offer this sort of flexibility to complement their coronavirus response strategies. 

In Arizona, for example, the state’s emergency education legislation states that “[f]or fiscal year 2020-2021, a public school student who takes an online course during June or July 2020 may generate up to a total of 1.25 average daily membership”—that is, an extra 25% of base formula funding from the state, meaning over $1,000 per student.   

The logic here is sound and well-meaning: Students whose instruction has been disrupted this spring might benefit from more intensive education over the summer. But why should online enrollment be privileged over other forms of education such as tutoring or the purchase of books or offline learning software, particularly among students struggling to get connected to the web?

Especially if the breakthroughs in rapid coronavirus testing and other developments allow some return to normalcy by the summer, there seems little reason to reward only a specific type of educational delivery with more generous funding.

Others experts such as Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation and Liv Finne at the Washington Policy Center have highlighted the potential value of education savings accounts amid the current tempest. Now, states—with the flexibility to craft their own legislation or perhaps develop programs through the $3 billion Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund, for example—could explore integrating a microgrant-type concept into the funding that’s about to flow to and through state and local education agencies to ultimately serve students.

Obviously, such a program would bring with it various logistical steps to solve—like the delivery mechanism of the funds, what purchases would be allowed, etc. But considering that Congress just greenlit roughly $15 billion for K-12 schools with open-ended spending authority, and the federal government is in the process of cutting $1,200 checks to American adults with an extra $500 per child, it would seem curious to veto the idea of flexible education funds for a lack of bureaucratic oversight. Moreover, existing platforms such as ClassWallet, which now serves Arizona’s ESA program, could perhaps be scaled up to quickly accommodate a larger number of accounts while leveraging the purchasing rules already being implemented within the program.

Indeed, with a rapidly growing number of states that have closed their school buildings through May, if not the entire school year, policymakers and educators may find themselves increasingly forced into one of two camps: those who are seeking to continue supporting students’ education via whatever patchwork of solutions is necessary—or those who think it better to suspend all learning in the name of equity and uniformity.

The successful track record of school choice programs in serving students most in need should make clear which of these camps deserves the support and ingenuity of policymakers.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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