Whatever the results of the midterm elections, the new Congress will face many old problems, especially in education. Yet, despite the seemingly intractable nature of these problems, there are important actions that Congress can take to meet the needs and concerns of parents and their children.
Improving student achievement, always a daunting challenge, has become infinitely more so in the wake of the COVID pandemic and the disastrous shutdown of many of the nation’s public schools for long stretches of time.
From 2020 to 2022, national reading scores for nine-year-olds registered the largest decline since the 1990s, while scores in math declined for the first time ever.
It is clear that many of the regular public schools failed to educate children during the pandemic and have no real plans to address the learning losses suffered by students.
Indeed, although the $120 billion in COVID-related aid that the Biden administration has thrown at public schools requires schools to spend part of that money to address learning losses, little of that funding has been used to implement effective measures to raise student achievement.
No wonder that two million students have un-enrolled from the public schools over the last couple years and why, for example, 50,000 students simply failed to show up on the first day of school in Los Angeles.
Parents are voting with their feet that they want more education options for their children, not just the one-size-fits-all often failing public school system.
Congress can help increase the educational choices for families.
Charter schools, which are often nimbler and more innovative than public schools, saw their enrollment increase by a quarter million during the pandemic, yet the federal Charter School Program, which sends federal dollars to charter schools, has had stagnant funding for years. Congress can fix that.
The Biden administration has also increased regulations on charter schools. For instance, to receive federal aid, charter schools must now show why they are needed in communities, which gives bureaucrats more power to deny funding.
Congress can and must address the Biden administration’s ongoing regulatory attack on charter schools.
Earlier this year, U.S. Representative Michelle Steel (R-CA) introduced the Protecting Charter Schools from Federal Overreach Act of 2022, which would have prohibited the Secretary of Education from finalizing proposed rulemaking that would subject charter schools to burdensome federal grant funding requirements.
“The federal government has no business restricting families’ options for their children’s education,” said Steel when she introduced her bill. “Parents, not teachers unions or DC bureaucrats, know what’s best for their children.”
Also, Congress can increase educational options by backpacking future funding to children and allowing parents to choose the education option that best suits the needs of children.
Harvard education professor Martin West has noted that if the money from the Biden administration’s COVID aid to public schools, which is still mostly unspent, was backpacked to students instead, it would work out to $2,300 per student.
Further, Congress can also enact a tax credit that individuals can claim when they make donations to organizations that award scholarships to students for expenses related to attending their school of their choice. Similar programs have been adopted in a number of states.
Besides increasing educational choice options for parents and their children, Congress can improve student safety. For instance, unspent COVID aid to public schools could be directed to increasing the number of school resource/police officers and trained counselors on campuses.
Congress can improve accountability and transparency for federal education programs by requiring that federal databases explain the purpose and impact of federal education spending.
For example, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Program sends hundreds of millions of dollars to states with little information on how states use the funding.
And when federal education programs are shown not to work, then they should be eliminated. For instance, the expensive federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which provide before- and after-school programs, have long been criticized for failing to show that participants improve in reading and math.
Parents across the country have raised their voices to demand that education improve. By enacting these measures, the new Congress can address their concerns and ensure that families have more choices, greater safety, and the assurance that their tax dollars are spent wisely.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and the author of the PRI book The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Politics, and Possibilities.