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Public education in crisis

Fruitless pandemic spending, lost ground in schooling, and the case for parental choice


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Public education in crisis
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With each new release of education data, the pandemic’s impact on student progress becomes more clear and more troubling. The most recent round shows disconcerting declines in 4th- and 8th-grade math and reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Math scores dropped more than at any time in the 32-year history of the evaluation. As the picture of pandemic learning loss gets clearer, the policy lessons should come into sharper focus as well. Inoculating against this scale of disruption in the future will require reforming how we finance and provide education.

On the heels of more general NAEP trend data, the new NAEP results released Oct. 24 give concrete information about what students know and can do in two essential subjects at two critical junctures. A nationally representative sample of students in fourth- and eighth-grade was assessed on reading and math in early 2022. The last administration of these exams was in 2019, offering a pre-pandemic point of comparison.

The NAEP evaluation defines three levels of student performance: basic, proficient, and advanced. In reality there is a fourth level as well—below basic—and it grew during the pandemic. Thirty-seven percent of 4th grade students scored below basic on the 2022 reading exam, compared to 33 percent in 2019. Thirty percent of 8th graders were below basic on reading, up from 27 percent. Math results were even more concerning. On the eighth-grade math evaluation, 38 percent of students were below the basic level, compared to 31 percent of students below basic in 2019. The bottom line is that overall student performance was not good before the pandemic, and it is decidedly worse now.

Policymakers’ first response to the pandemic’s educational disruption was to send vast new funding to schools, including through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) in March 2021. The Washington Post released an analysis of school districts’ spending of that pandemic relief the same day it reported the dismal NAEP results. During the 2021-22 academic year, districts overall spent less than 15 percent of the $122 billion allocated by the ARP. About 100 districts with the greatest learning loss had spent 5 percent or less of their funds. Some are still spending down earlier pandemic education relief that dates back to the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University has quantified district-level student learning loss in terms of weekly progress. For example, its modeling suggests that Washington, D.C., students lost 20 weeks of learning in math and 12 weeks in reading due to the pandemic. The lab has also estimated the costs of making up that ground through tutoring and compared that to the sizable sums of federal relief funding available to each district.

Why aren’t pandemic relief resources getting to students to make up for learning loss?

Data like these raise the question: Why aren’t pandemic relief resources getting to students to make up for learning loss? One contributing factor is a reality that plagued the system long before the pandemic. Tax financing of education goes to a complex and bureaucratic system with officials at the district, state, and federal level. Money directed by the federal government to local schooling is particularly inefficient, as it has to make its way through each of those administrative layers. For decades, lackluster student academic performance has remained largely unchanged despite ever-increasing federal education funding.

The most effective way for money to reach students is to put it in their parents’ hands. Education financing reforms should allow dollars to follow students. Two states are setting the standard by making the most flexible mechanism for parental choice available to the widest population of families. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Program and West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship deposit state per-pupil funding into an account that parents control. Parents determine how and where to spend the money—from tutoring to tuition—based on their child’s needs. As a result, they have greater freedom to exercise their God-given responsibility to direct their children’s upbringing and education.

Allowing families to control their children’s education funding would also encourage a greater range of educational environments—including a wide array of private schools, micro-schools, and hybrid schooling. A diversity of educational options would let parents choose more personalized learning environments that nurture their children’s flourishing and unique gifts. That kind of educational ecosystem would better reflect the reality that every child is made in the image of God.

Funding should follow students to schooling environments that can be more responsive to their individual needs, especially when instruction is interrupted—whether by snow days or a pandemic. For now, students have hard work ahead to get their progress back on track after Covid-19. So do parents and other taxpayers who want to put students and learning at the center of how education is funded and delivered.


Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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