Buckeye Institute Report Offers Solutions to Ohio Students’ Learning Loss

Responding to major learning loss suffered by Ohio students as a result of the school closures following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbus-based Buckeye Institute recommended policy solutions this week to help students regain what the education system did not provide. 

On March 30, 2020, Republican Governor Mike DeWine ordered all in-person K-12 schooling closed throughout the state for the remainder of that school year. Students instead participated in “virtual classrooms” wherein they would watch their teachers’ instructions online. During the 2020-21 school year, many school districts continued to keep school buildings closed at least part-time. 

According to an analysis of test scores by political scientists Vladimir Kogan and Stéphane Lavertu of the Ohio State University, school closures occurring between March 2020 and April 2021 forced many children to effectively forfeit as much as a full year of mathematics education and as much as a half-year of language arts learning. Kogan and Lavertu found these losses to be even more pronounced among minority students. 

In his Buckeye Institute report addressing this problem, research fellow Greg R. Lawson urged state policymakers to strengthen education by implementing expanded school choice opportunities via education savings accounts (ESAs), inter-district open enrollment and tax-credit scholarships. The latter two policies as well as vouchers are available to some Ohio families but the institute suggests there is much room for progress. 

“The disruption of the pandemic cost Ohio students the equivalent of months of academic instruction,” Lawson said in a statement. “Given the negative long-term financial and social effects of this learning loss, Ohio policymakers should pursue student-first strategies to regain lost learning time and improve academic outcomes for elementary and secondary students. By dramatically increasing schooling options and educational resources available to parents, policymakers will help families to tailor academic environments to fit their children’s learning needs.”

Lawson said the experience of many satisfied parents in such states as North Carolina and Florida suggests that ESAs would be popular in the Buckeye State as well. He also cited survey data from the national organization EdChoice indicating that while school choice generally polls favorably among more than half the general public, ESAs poll especially well. These accounts that permit parents to generate untaxed savings for their children’s education, sometimes to be spent like voucher funds on private schools but often for other purchases like tutors, textbooks and online courses. 

The institute supports offering ESAs to all families making up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. In the short run, Lawson wrote, Ohio lawmakers should expand Ohio’s ACE accounts, which start at $500 and fund enrichment programs for student households with incomes under 300 percent of the federal poverty level. 

Lawson’s report furthermore exhorted state officials to back an expansion of the new program that bestows a dollar-for-dollar credit on taxpayers who give up to $750 to an approved scholarship-granting entity. But because private schooling costs are typically several times what one tax filer is incentivized to contribute, the institute advises raising the tax credit limit. 

The report also argues for more comprehensive public school choice via open enrollment, something about four-fifths of the state’s school districts already permit, offering a selection of public schools to about 85,000 students. But Lawson notes that the districts that do not participate in open enrollment tend to be suburban jurisdictions outside of cities, thus restricting the ability of parents with children in some of the lowest-performing schools to seek alternatives. 

A final recommendation Lawson makes pertains to greater spending transparency. He noted that fewer than one-third of Buckeye State school districts opt to promulgate their spending via the Ohio Checkbook, an online expenditure reporting system for state agencies. He would make participation mandatory.

“Any perceived secrecy only exacerbates distrust between parents and public educators, and [the] more transparency that schools can muster to help parents make educational choices for their children the better,” Lawson wrote.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Ohio Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].



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