Now is the time to renew our focus on students and their futures

Now is the time to renew our focus on students and their futures
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You can’t just put a child’s development on hold. That’s clear to every parent. And when schools shut down last spring, many watched nervously as the ad-hoc measures put into place — from Zoom classes to emailed assignments — failed far too many students. It’s time to renew our focus on students and their futures.

Only one in seven parents in a recent survey said their children will be returning to school full-time. And for most of the rest of those, “remote school requires hands-on help from an adult at home,” as the New York Times reports.

Yet four in five of the families with kids at home this fall will have no one else on hand (in person) to help. Most parents will do their best, while holding down their regular jobs. Researchers say that’s having a bigger impact on moms and their careers.

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The big decisions about education in the COVID-19 world will be made at dinner tables, local school board meetings, and state houses. But that doesn’t mean the federal government can’t provide more options in the role it does play. And options are what parents desperately need right now.

First, we can free up federal money we already spend and allow it to help struggling parents. That’s what Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSecond GOP senator to quarantine after exposure to coronavirus GOP senator to quarantine after coronavirus exposure The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by National Industries for the Blind - Trump seeks to flip 'Rage' narrative; Dems block COVID-19 bill MORE’s (R-Ky.) SCHOOL Act does. The Act helps families by “empowering them to use their own tax dollars to find the option that best fits their family’s needs and allowing them to reclaim a bit of stability in uncertain times,” Paul says.

Parents can use the funds for things ranging from curriculum materials (including technology) and tutoring to extracurricular activities to private school tuition. The point is, it’s the parents’ decision.

The SCHOOL Act would be of particular value to parents of students with special needs, who have their own challenges when it comes to Zoom meetings and self-directed coursework. As a new report from the Heritage Foundation points out, “Students with disabilities have a legal right to receive services that prepare them for competitive and integrated employment — and this is best achieved by focusing on the individual needs of each student.”

Special education is funded through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); parents should be allowed to take the IDEA funding their child is entitled to, and use it at a “school, service provider or treatment plan” of their choice, Heritage says.

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These dollars, like most federal education funding, are intended to be supplemental. Combining this change with similar funding flexibilities at the state level would make them even more effective. But even supplemental funding could be a godsend to struggling families right now, and the federal government can (and should) lead on giving families greater access to their already-allocated education dollars.

Proponents could build consensus around allowing parents to direct the use of those federal funds. A new CNN report points out a growing concern about “pandemic pods,” privately assembled learning groups for kids stuck at home. The nation’s two largest teacher unions are against them, of course, warning these pods might “exacerbate the inequalities.”

The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says so herself: “Without public investment, pods will serve the few, not the many.”

What better argument for providing the means for all parents, at all income levels, to participate in these pods — or any other program they deem fit?

Next, we can ensure that new federal dollars being sent to the states get to the parents who need them. That’s what the School Choice Now Act, offered by Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottAuthor Ryan Girdusky: RNC worked best when highlighting 'regular people' as opposed to 'standard Republicans' Now is the time to renew our focus on students and their futures GOP lobbyists pleasantly surprised by Republican convention MORE (R-S.C.) and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Alexander backs vote on Trump Supreme Court nominee: What Democrats 'would do if the shoe were on the other foot' Toobin: McConnell engaging in 'greatest act of hypocrisy in American political history' with Ginsburg replacement vote MORE (R-Tenn.), and introduced in the House last week by a bipartisan delegation, would do. It would set aside 10 percent of new funds, allowing that money to follow the students.

“Giving children more opportunity to choose their school is a real answer to inequality in America,” Sen. Alexander said.

Historically, the role of the federal government in education is to ensure equal access for all students. That has never been more important than right now, when that access is suddenly determined by things entirely out of a parent’s (or district’s) control — such as internet speeds and whether Zoom will or won’t crash.

We put our economy on pause for the pandemic. We can’t do that with child development. Let’s leverage federal funds to make sure our kids continue to learn.

Emily Sass is policy director of the Next Generation Texas campaign at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.