News Analysis Feb 13, 2021 3:25 PM EST

Pandemic school closures light a fire under school choice debate

Efforts to create provisions like this have increased nationwide since the pandemic began in large part because many schools across the US have been closed to in-person learning for the entire year.

Pandemic school closures light a fire under school choice debate
Nicole Russell Texas, US
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Legislators in at least 17 states have introduced bills to fund students instead of systems, according to this map via the EFI Institute, a non profit organization that promotes school choice.

Republican lawmakers in states that are historically more liberal, like New Hampshire, Washington, and Virginia, have been spearheading efforts to create education savings accounts that parents can use to send their kids to a school that fits best for their family.

Efforts to create provisions like this have increased nationwide since the pandemic began in large part because many schools across the US have been closed to in-person learning for the entire year. Large school systems, like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco have been fully closed since mid-March 2020, and are only just now figuring out how to get kids back in class for just a part-time in-person education.

Recently the Iowa Senate passed a bill, SF 159, to provide students who would normally attend public schools with poor performance scores with education savings accounts.

If SF 159 becomes law, Iowa students who are eligible to enroll in certain public schools in certain districts could receive a "student first scholarship" to attend a nonpublic school instead. According to a local news source, the "scholarships would be exempt from Iowa individual income tax, and funded by a General Fund standing unlimited appropriation beginning in fiscal year 2023."

"If there's one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it's that our parents need choice. And it's not just in-person versus virtual," said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, in a statement.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the nuance of school choice in several states. "Florida Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz has introduced a bill to consolidate the state's current scholarship programs into taxpayer-funded ESAs. Nearly 200,000 students participate in the state's existing programs, only one of which uses ESAs. The ESAs would give parents more flexibility in how they use the money."

In a recent Forbes column author Robert Pondiscio pinpointed the origin of these provisions to school closures. "Parent frustration is growing. And the intransigence of teachers unions and districts to resume in-person learning is reaching epic levels—and epic levels of obtuseness," he said.

An Education Next survey found that while 60 percent of private school students are receiving instruction in person, over half of students enrolled in public schools are receiving remote instruction. Only in one four students are attending school in person. Many school choice advocates believe education savings accounts could actually provide the kind of equal access to good schools that both Republicans and Democrats say they always want.

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