How to repair the educational wreckage from COVID-19

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The Biden administration announced a new campaign this month to recruit 250,000 tutors for K-12 students to address learning loss from school closures and distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is a long overdue step to help children recover the learning and achievement they lost due to the absence of in-person instruction. But it is also woefully insufficient.

A recent study by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University found that even students who spent less than a month learning remotely during the 2020-21 school year missed the equivalent of seven to 10 weeks of math learning. Students at high-poverty schools fared even worse, because their schools were more likely to remain remote for longer and because they often lack the at-home assistance families were expected to provide. Indeed, low-income schools spent about 5 1/2 more weeks in remote instruction during the 2020-21 school year than higher-income schools and missed the equivalent of 22 weeks of in-person math learning. That’s more than half of a traditional school year (roughly 36-40 weeks).

In other words, we have a learning-loss crisis, and Biden’s plan to recruit more tutors simply isn’t going to cut it.

If the administration were serious about reducing learning deficits, it would expand educational choices for school-aged children. Doing so would enable parents across the socioeconomic spectrum to access schools better suited to their children’s needs. Right now, in many states, only high-income families have that privilege. It would also give parents a way to opt out of the growing trend in public school districts of teaching students what to think rather than how to think.

Unfortunately, Biden is more interested in putting a Band-Aid on a problem he helped create. He has sided repeatedly with teachers unions as they lobbied to keep schools closed for well over a year — past the point of caution or public health necessity. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly adopted language submitted by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers union, to discourage schools from reopening in early 2021. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, offered no science or data to justify her agency’s guidance and ignored the growing pile of evidence that virtual learning was doing irreparable harm to students across the country.

Meanwhile, private (often religious) schools and charter schools became an oasis for America’s families, helping children by simply staying open. According to a survey by Education Next conducted in November and December 2020, only 24% of public schools were providing full in-person instruction compared to 60% of independent and religious schools.

But in many states, these schools were only available as options to the families who could afford them. Parents without the financial resources to send their children to a private or religious school had few options, even as their public schools remained shuttered.

Nevertheless, a remarkable number of parents took action anyway.

And between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years, district public school enrollment declined on a net basis by nearly 1.3 million students nationally, a drop of more than 2.5%, according to data tracked by the American Enterprise Institute and Davidson College. School districts that stuck with remote learning the longest had an even greater enrollment loss, averaging a 4.4% decline.

A more expansive, national effort is needed to empower parents to select the best schooling options and the best ways to address learning loss for their children. And even though the Biden administration has shown little interest in seriously addressing this problem, a number of legislators in Congress are taking action.

The Educational Choice for Children Act , introduced late last month in the House and Senate, would empower millions of students to attend schools of their parents’ choice by creating a $10 billion federal tax credit to encourage charitable donations to K-12 not-for-profit scholarship funds. If passed by Congress, this legislation would supplement educational freedom policies in states such as Arizona and Florida and fill enormous voids in most other states bereft of school choice opportunities.

This legislation would empower millions of parents by making them customers in a K-12 marketplace. It would also force district public schools to either respond to their student’s needs or watch as more and more parents transfer their children to greener educational pastures.

Luke Messer is the president of the Invest in Education Foundation, which supports school choice policies to expand educational freedom, and is a former congressman from Indiana.