COVID-19 Makes the Case for
Educational Flexibility Even Stronger
By Benjamin Scafidi
With respect to school openings during this COVID-19 pandemic, a public health professor recently observed, “There are no ideal solutions here. No matter what schools do, they won’t make everyone happy.” Of course, that is true in the monolithic K-12 education system we have now. But we can move away from a monolithic system. We can move to a system that empowers parents with more choices.
Calls for giving families choice in K-12 education go back to Thomas Paine in the Rights of Man, John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, and—the modern father of choice in education—Milton Friedman. Instead of giving government exclusive control over taxpayer funds for the education of youth, Paine, Mill, and Friedman suggested that taxpayer funds should go directly to families of school-aged children—where families would decide where their children are educated. The core issue is this: Who decides how taxpayer funds for education are spent—the government, as is largely the case now, or families?
Many reasons to support expanded educational opportunity
There are so many reasons to give families more choice in K-12 education. The balance of the extensive empirical research finds that choice programs have improved student achievement and educational attainment for students who exercise choice and improved outcomes for students who remain in public schools. Further, private schools appear to do a better job of providing students with important civic virtues like tolerance and volunteerism, and private school choice programs have promoted integration. And choice programs, including Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program, have been designed to save taxpayers money.
Giving parents control over where their children are educated allows them to choose school and non-school offerings that are tailored to their children’s interests and needs. Under such a choice system, prospective schools and other education providers are incentivized to provide customized educational and social environments that meet the interests and needs of students and their families. And the evidence—including evidence here in Georgia—suggests that families that exercise choice are overwhelmingly much happier with the services in their students new schools of choice.
In this era of COVID-19, there are now additional reasons to support educational opportunity—families have different health risk tolerances; families, students, and teachers have different underlying health conditions; and families have different health preferences. Public school districts going fully online do not permit families to sort their children into schools (and teachers to sort into schools) based on their varying health preferences. When entire public school districts go entirely online, they are providing what many families desire, but they are not providing what many other families want or need.
As an example, a family with (a) one parent who can stay at home or work part-time from home; (b) a family member with an underlying health condition; and (c) older children may be delighted that their public school is fully online.
However, other families may not be happy with fully online schools. A family with one parent who works full-time outside the home; (b) young children; and (c) no underlying health concerns may desire five-day, full-day, face-to-face schooling with safety precautions. Online schooling may force some parents to quit their jobs. Of course, families of children with special needs may be subject to the most hardships with online schooling.
It is impossible for a one-size-fits-all approach to health concerns to meet the needs of all families. Meeting the diverse educational and social needs and interests of children—and now the differing health needs of students and their families in this era of COVID-19—is only possible in a choice system.
What can states do to provide more educational choice to families?
First, to the extent permitted by federal law, states should use existing and forthcoming federal education funds to offer families choice. South Carolina and Oklahoma are using federal CARES funding to provide scholarships for school-aged children. South Carolina is providing scholarships to defray private school tuition costs up to $6,500 for 5,000 students from low- and middle-income families, where $6,500 is just over half of what taxpayers spend to educate students in their public schools.
Second, states should create new choice programs or expand existing ones.
The track record of existing education choice programs in the United States is strong. COVID-19 only makes the case for choice stronger. Hopefully, policymakers will rise to the occasion and give students and families an educational lifeline during these challenging times.
Benjamin Scafidi is the director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University and a Friedman Fellow at EdChoice.
EVERY CHILD WITH ACCESS TO A QUALITY EDUCATION
A quality education is key to a child’s future success. Academic achievement paves the way to a good job, self-sufficiency, and the earned success we all want for our children. To learn more about education options in Georgia click here.