Congress Must Help Parents Financially While Public Schools Are Shuttered

For parents, Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year. It’s typically an exciting time. Parents are school shopping, filling the supply list and attending orientation to meet the new teacher. It also marks a time of year when many parents go back to work full time or are relieved from the financial burdens of paying for summer camps and day care.

This Labor Day, however, many parents were left to worry about finding an alternative to shuttered schools. Where do parents turn when “back to school” isn’t an option?

Parents across the country are pleading with their school districts to reopen. Hard working, paycheck-to-paycheck American families already on very tight budgets have been forced since March either to stay home and forgo work or pay for child care that they could barely afford. They are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

These families are being pressured to make financial sacrifices, not for health reasons, but to avoid leaving their children unsupervised. We are not talking about “Do we go on vacation or not?” or “Do we remodel the kitchen?” We are talking about families who must decide whether to pay rent or buy food for the week. School closures are leaving the most vulnerable, underserved families and children to fend for themselves.

The potential consequences for the “achievement gap” are even more devastating. The gap between education outcomes for lower and higher income students is an issue that states have been battling for years and one that has been compounded by the implementation of Common Core State Standards. These standards are flawed and risk pushing many students into deeper slumps or stagnating their academic progress.

Learning deficits in the earlier grades could have irreversible consequences if not addressed immediately. Before the pandemic, roughly one in three students was proficient in reading by the fourth grade. If children are unable to build a strong reading comprehension foundation in their early years, they often get left behind and struggle to catch up, suffering the effects throughout the rest of their education.

Lawmakers showed some signs of understanding the current reality for American families, with Senate Republicans’ latest coronavirus proposal including at least $5 billion in provisions aimed at school choice. However, the main provision still does not put funds directly in the hands of families; instead, it funnels funds to states that in turn funnel funds to scholarship-granting organizations. Although well-intentioned, this is the very type of bureaucracy families cannot afford at a crisis moment like this.

Congress should help solve the public education crisis by putting any federal education funds directly in the hands of parents, a path Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Repubican, outline in their bicameral SCHOOL Act, S. 4432 and H.R. 8054. Instead of channelling money into systems, parents should have access to funds that would allow them to seek education in alternative settings, such as private schools or learning co-ops. Doing so would encourage state and localities to do the same.

During the last six months, many governors and school boards have squandered valuable time resisting reopening for the 2020-21 school year. They have spent more time coming up with excuses for why it could not be done instead of using that same energy to innovate and get the job done for students. Families should not have to suffer due to poor planning and negligence on the part of their states and school districts.

If public schools are going to remain shuttered, then money should follow students, not the schools. It is critical that children have the opportunity to learn and parents the freedom to work this school year. In fact, regardless of schools reopening or not, and in every school year, this should be the default.

Now is the time for Congress to take bold swift action. It’s time to acknowledge the current public education system is in a crisis. Parents need a lifeline by putting existing federal education funds directly in the hands of parents.

Laura D. Zorc is school board chairwoman for the School District of Indian River County in Indian River County, Florida. She is an advocate for education policy and co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core.