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Op-ed Placement

National School Choice Week Is a Good Time To Advocate for Pro-Student Policies

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01/26/2021
Originally Published in The Washington Times on 1/26/21.

With the wave of school closures stemming from COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, parents have increasingly advocated for school choice during the 2020-2021 school year.

Similar to parents across the nation speaking out against Common Core Standards in 2013, we are witnessing a sleeping giant of parents wake up and demand school choice so their children are able to learn in person.

As we begin to celebrate National School Choice week, parents from across the country are organizing in their communities to advocate for pro-student policies. Some groups are even holding weekly gatherings, hosting protests during board meetings, and reaching out to their legislators to answer their cries for help.

In November, Virginia State Delegate Michael Webert, Dist. 18 Republican, filed a crucial piece of legislation that would give parents in Virginia control over the money put towards their child’s education. Mr. Webert’s bill, H.B. 1742, gives families emergency financial relief during the pandemic if school districts do not offer students access to in-person instruction.

Despite calls to support the bill from Virginia voters, however, it appears families in Virginia will fall victim to a revolting display of party politics. The bill that would put emergency education vouchers in the hands of families has been stopped dead in its tracks by the Democrat-controlled state legislature.

This is sadly not the first example of politicians and their allies interfering with parents who wish to have control over the education of their children. While debates regarding education should leave aside partisanship for the sake of helping our youth, party elites and teacher union groups are selfishly working to promote their own interests at the expense of those who they claim to serve: the nation’s children.

Although too many legislators view students as mere feathers in their political cap, it’s encouraging that some politicians are starting to see the damaging consequences of distance learning percolating to the surface. A safe return to in-person schooling can happen, as thousands of school districts have shown- it can be done.

But while many states and school districts dedicated their summer months to developing new innovative health and safety plans, others incorrectly insisted it was “too dangerous” to even consider returning for in-person instruction.

While districts that prioritized the safe return of their students worked to keep schools open, others fell short by failing to allow students to return in the fall. Even after being shuttered since March, many of these same districts have no plan to bring their students back to the classroom.

The newly “woke” value of school choice has millions of parents seeking alternatives this National School Choice Week.

Parents are witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of the COVID-19 “learning slide.” Nonpartisan experts predict that the pandemic will set students back significantly, especially minority students. Students of color have been hit hardest with losses of six to twelve months of learning, compared with four to eight months for White students.

Even scarier, it could be years before we see the full consequences of school closures. Students in the first few years of elementary school education are still learning to read; this is an essential skill for students to be able to learn more complicated content in the future. Before the pandemic, approximately 50 percent of fourth graders could read on grade level. When kids can’t read, the consequences are disastrous, short of strategic, remedial interventions. Unfortunately, the resources for such interventions were lacking in school districts before the pandemic.

Such troubling statistics are why parents like Russell Laird of Virginia are taking matters into their own hands. Mr. Laird filed a lawsuit with attorneys from WhitbeckBennett on Jan. 14, 2021 against the Arlington School District. Laird’s attorneys issued a press release that speaks to the frustration of not only their client, but of the millions of parents stripped of choice during this National School Choice Week. The statement said that “parents should have the choice to balance the risks of COVID-19 against the clear negative impact of long-term distance learning on their children.”

This National School Choice Week, we celebrate with the nearly 12 million students fortunate enough to be placed in a learning environment that will insure they socially and academically thrive. However, we realize that there is still much more work to do.

This week, let’s keep in mind the families trapped in school districts that have no plans to bring back in person learning this 2020-2021 school year, and ensure that their children receive the education that they deserve.

  • Laura Zorc is FreedomWorks senior adviser of education policy reform and parent led advocacy. A former school board chair, she is the co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core (FPACC).*