by Jason Edmonds
This school year started unlike any other for children across the country, many of whom began the year staring at a computer screen. Yet for the minority of students who were able to start the year at an independent school, their education was minimally impacted, with most continuing with in-person classes. It’s unfortunate that some students are being forced to go virtual for their education, with some public school districts refusing to reopen classrooms until the beginning of the next school year. What’s even more unfortunate is the reason for these decisions to keep classrooms closed may not be based on safety and science but sheer political influence.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the requesting organization, Americans for Public Trust, uncovered that schools’ continued shutdowns were influenced by union leadership at the American Federation for Teachers. Far from caring for students’ education and wellbeing, the union pushed back against the CDC’s recommendations to reopen schools even with study after study proving students attending in-person classes were far less likely to catch or transmit COVID-19. A control case of Mississippi students found “that having attended gatherings and social functions outside the home as well as having had visitors in the home was associated with increased risk of infection; however, in-person school attendance during the 14 days prior to diagnosis was not.”
Whether it was the curriculum of virtual schooling, difficulties with online education, or the need for social interaction, public school parents began to look for alternatives to educating their children outside of their zoned public school. This led to an explosion of homeschooling with the Census Bureau reporting that homeschool enrollment more than doubled during this past school year. In addition to homeschooling, learning pods and microschools grew in popularity, as these innovative education models give parents customizable and flexible options to offer their child an education that fits his or her needs. An EdChoice survey from September 2020 showed 35 percent of respondents participating in a learning pod and another 18 percent looking to join one. This wave of change and innovation across the education landscape didn’t end in families’ homes. Soon legislators across the country began introducing educational choice legislation at levels that had never been seen before. Just this year alone, legislators in 30 states have introduced over 50 pieces of educational choice legislation. As a result, numerous states have created new educational choice programs or expanded their current ones.
Innovative education models and returning control to families have begun to significantly transform K-12 education. Arguably, these changes will benefit rural students the most, who have struggled with fewer educational options compared to their urban peers. Unlike families in urban areas, which in many cases have a private, charter, or alternative public school nearby, rural students are usually left with no choice outside of their zoned public school. In many rural areas, with no other public or private options within reach, rural students have struggled to obtain significant educational freedom. Instead, they have been handed a take-it-or-leave-it education due to the lack of options. But with the rise in innovative models like learning pods and microschools, along with the increase in educational freedom legislation, rural students across America are finally in a position to get an education that fits their unique needs.
With educational choice legislation at record levels, legislators should remember rural students when crafting their bills. Though any educational freedom program is a step in the right direction to giving parents a choice in their child’s education, there are programs, such as Tennessee’s Educational Savings Account program passed in 2019, that only apply to certain areas of the state. Lawmakers can look to the bold example set by West Virginia, which recently passed the most expansive Education Savings Account program in the nation, offering educational freedom across the state, for all students, regardless of their location.
It’s easy to see that the expansion of educational choice programs is a direct response to the problem of funding school systems over the students. Should a school be unable to meet the needs of a student, families should be able to use those educational funds for any educational option that actually meets the needs of their child. With a recent Real Clear Opinion Research survey showing 71 percent of parents supporting school choice, it’s obvious that after more than a year of witnessing the public school system fail, more and more parents now see the value in having a choice when it comes to their child’s education.
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Jason Edmonds is a Research Associate at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the state’s premier think tank.