States Move To Support Families During Pandemic

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K-12 schools across the country are reopening for the fall, and we are all waiting anxiously to see how everything goes. Will schools that open for in-person instruction see coronavirus outbreaks? Will schools that are delaying or choosing to operate virtually do a better job connecting to and educating students than they did in the spring when they were improvising? How many families will flee the traditional public system to private schools and “pandemic pods,” potentially never to return?

We won’t know the answers to these questions for some time, but in the meantime, policymakers across several states are taking concrete steps to try and support families in the age of Covid-19.

In North Carolina, the legislature passed a coronavirus relief bill, HB 1105, that included several provisions supporting families during the pandemic. It contained a $335 tax credit for costs related to at-home learning, lifted enrollment and income caps on for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, and allowed the state’s two virtual charter schools to enroll more students. HB 1105 passed with wide majorities (104-10 in the House and 44-5 in the Senate) and Gov. Roy Cooper signed it into law.

In the Wall Street Journal, my friend Max Eden heads out west to Idaho to describe the Gem State’s Advanced Opportunities program. That program grants seventh-graders $4,125 to customize their high school education. It existed before the coronavirus and had been supporting students taking online courses, AP exams, and career and technical courses for four years now. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the program put Idaho students in a much better position, as they were easily able to access online courses and continue their learning.

Back in the middle of July, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt rolled out a series of proposals to help families. These include Learn Anywhere Oklahoma, a $12 million program to support more online coursework; the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, which gave $1,500 grants to low income families to purchase supplies needed for online learning and other necessary educational services; and Stay in School Funds, providing $6,500 scholarships to allow low-income students to stay in the private schools they attended last year.

Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina unveiled SAFE grants at the end of July, providing $6,500 scholarships to approximately 5,000 K-12 students from families that earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line. These scholarships will be only be for the 2020-21 school year and will funded via federal CARES Act dollars.

There are also plans afoot in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island to provide education savings accounts for families, either for supplemental educational needs to try and make up for lost learning time, or for families in public schools that are not reopening with in-person instruction so that they can find a better educational option elsewhere.

Many of these programs and initiatives have become political footballs. In North Carolina, the school choice-related provisions have attracted opprobrium, even though they are part of a relief package that seems to offer a bit something for everyone. In South Carolina, opponents are litigating SAFE Grants. It is unclear if Pennsylvania or Rhode Island will be able to get enough support to get their programs up and running.

This is, of course, unfortunate. It is also hard not to see it as a rearguard action on the part of public schools that lack confidence in their reopening plans. In every case, the support being offered to students to seek options outside of the traditional system is a rounding error compared to the funding going to support public schools. There is something else going on here.

If public schools have strong plans that they have communicated well to families, they have nothing to worry about. We know families will seek out the educational option that works best for their children if they’re given a chance. For many, that will undoubtedly mean sticking with their traditional school in their community. But for those who need something other than what those schools are proposing, we owe it to them to make sure those opportunities exist.

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