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Schools and states must adjust to life after COVID-19

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Preparing for next school year already appears exceptionally daunting. The standard back-to-school playbook doesn’t apply. Amid the challenges facing educators and local officials, they must find ways to serve many students who will struggle to adapt, in various ways, to the post-pandemic “new normal.”

There’s an understandable desire to cushion local tax-funded schools and districts from the turbulence brought on by the pandemic and the accompanying fiscal shortfalls. Federal aid through the CARES Act promises to lessen some budgeting burdens. But extraordinary upheavals throughout the U.S. require political leaders to address the diverse needs facing students and families. 

To help, states must give school districts greater flexibility so they can pursue various ways to help students in this unusual moment. But it’s shortsighted to rely on these conventional institutions alone to meet all the new and varied student needs. The next round of federal action should support decision-making at the most local level: the family unit.

If public health conditions allow, many parents will be relieved to send their children back to school. But school boards may not be able to make classrooms available on a regular schedule or at full capacity. According to a recent national poll, one in five teachers say the pandemic is likely to keep them from returning to school this fall. If schools also make sure their employees aren’t working when they’re sick, the resulting staff shortages might prevent some students from getting all the services they need. 

Students who have fallen behind or have not connected well through a school’s distance learning program need more options. One would be to unlock privately funded 529 plans. In Michigan alone, many thousands of K-12 students have an account in their name. Federal lawmakers originally intended for these tax-exempt plans to help people save for college, but in 2017, Congress added private school tuition to the list of eligible expenses. 

New legislation could allow cash-strapped families to use 529 funds to cover costs involved with at-home learning, as they work to help their children catch up or stay on track. Families could use their own savings to buy tutoring services, educational software or other materials without incurring a tax penalty.

But many households, especially those with less income, don’t have a 529 plan. Congress should create and fund flexible spending accounts for them. Eligible parents could use the money to pay for tests to diagnose their children’s learning strengths and deficits, as well as tuition for summer school programs or remedial online courses. 

Students with disabilities may have extra health-related concerns about returning to campus and need a service that the school is not providing well. Alternately, they may just need extra intervention to help them meet academic goals. Six states provide education savings accounts to help families choose how they can best meet their special education needs. Federal officials should make a smaller, emergency version of these accounts available across the nation. Students who are not being well-served could have another recourse.

A final area of student-focused relief should go to support families who have chosen private education and now struggle to afford the tuition bill. Job loss, furlough and reduced work hours have become all too common. New financial straits may compel many parents to make the difficult choice of removing their children from a private school where they have been learning and thriving. If this happens often enough, the number of private schools that close their doors may continue to grow.

Those students will face an unstable school year and may stumble in their academic progress. But the fallout could touch other students, too. Each student compelled to switch from a private to a public school costs the state extra money, which will require many states to come up with more money or leave fewer dollars for schools on a per-pupil basis. 

Nearly 5 million students nationwide attend private schools. If the sudden jolt of a recession forced even 10 percent to enroll in public schools, the national advocacy group EdChoice estimates, states would have to find an additional $3.3 billion to educate them.

To forestall this influx, governors could dedicate some CARES Act money to compensate K-12 scholarship organizations for the money they will lose because of a falling economy. Currently, 18 states provide tax credits for donations to these organizations, which help students from low-income families attend private schools. Congress could ease the burden on all states by approving emergency federal tax benefits up to a limited amount, both for those making scholarship donations and for families paying tuition out of their own pockets. 

Shifting circumstances and diverse challenges call for a broad and varied approach to promote education. Any continuing federal relief should go beyond schools and providers to offer students and their families the support they need to choose what works best for them. 

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

Tags 529 plan COVID-19 Education economics K-12 education

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