A school year lost, and a solution found
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One of the great lessons of the pandemic is this: American education does not work as it should.

It doesn’t work for millions of our parents or millions of our teachers — and it especially doesn’t work for millions of our children. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was cover for politicians and unions to take counsel of their fears — despite the extraordinarily low transmission risk to children and despite tens of millions of other Americans continuing to work — and shut down learning for millions of American children. Those kids lost a full year.

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It’s a year they’ll never get back.

With millions of American households in our remote and underserved communities lacking either internet access or a computer, one would think that our schools in our nation’s most distressed communities would fight hardest to stay open. But, in fact, by December 2020, only 24 percent of traditional public schools had reopened. And so, the gap between underserved communities and those more well off continues to widen, if not worsen.

The loss of in-person learning is already having a profound effect on our children. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 65 percent of fourth-graders were not proficient in reading, and 59 percent were not performing at grade level in math. The school closures during the pandemic have only made this problem worse. To date, we know that second- and third-graders’ reading skills are 30 percent behind where they would be in a normal year. Research also shows that some students could be behind nearly a full year in their academic development. The learning loss in math for students is predicted to be less than 50 percent of learning gains in a normal, in-person year.

This data doesn’t even account for the long-term effects such as lost socialization skills, delayed development, mental-health effects, long-term educational diminishment leading to reduced opportunities in adulthood — all consequences of spending a year outside of school.

These are just the effects on children. Think too of the millions of working moms and dads, unable to send their children to school, compelled to exit the workforce.  

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It wasn’t this way everywhere, of course. States and localities with more conservative governance — or just plain commonsense governance — did a good job getting kids back in school after the spring 2020 lockdowns. We saw the opposite from the central planners on the left. They expelled their own children and then kept them out.

It’s pure lunacy when you realize that now, at the end of this school year like no other, half a year after the debut of COVID-19 vaccinations, nearly three months after their general availability, and weeks after even the Biden administration announced Americans in aggregate don’t need masks, there are school systems that still haven’t welcomed back their kids.

There may not be a more clarifying point than this: our public education unions, the politicians that are elected on those union dollars, and the radical elites they both seem to prioritize may serve some constituencies, but it sure isn’t our children.

That’s why it’s time for real school choice now, and everywhere. Individual parents, even well organized, may not always be able to change a broken system that puts bureaucracies above children. We can’t expect them to, but we can empower them to leave it. In so doing, we can create transformative market forces that will lift up every school — and every school system.

Over the past year, 26 state legislatures have considered bills to provide education choice opportunities for students who dream of a brighter and better future. Nine states have signed legislation this year, which is a good start — but it isn’t enough. The next time a pandemic or something like it descends upon the country, American parents must have the assurance that they’ll have enough choice, and enough power, so that fearful bureaucrats can never again sacrifice a year of their children’s lives. 

As the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” The struggle for real opportunity for our American children continues. As a young girl from a small Texas town, raised by a single mom, with two little sisters, I fully understand what real education opportunity can mean. Education was my pathway from that tiny town on the Texas plains to the White House. Only in this great country can dreams like this be realized. But for far, far too many, that chance will never come, unless school choice becomes a reality for every child.

If there is any silver lining of this pandemic year, let it be that our legislators and leaders will finally join the struggle and ultimately win the battle for school choice and ultimately, for the future of America. 

Brooke L. Rollins is president and chief executive officer at the America First Policy Institute and previously served as an assistant to the president and Director of the Domestic Policy Council under the Trump administration.