As we embark on the first full year of schooling during this global pandemic, one thing is clear: America’s K-12 education system is in crisis.
Despite the heroic efforts of America’s educators, our educational institutions have struggled under the weight of this new mission of continuing schooling without school buildings.
Large numbers of children are not showing up for online classes. Those who do often learn only a fraction of what they would have inside school classrooms. So far, as a nation, we have avoided a large-scale emergency response and hoped for the best.
If we continue down this path, our nation’s already high levels of educational inequalitywill reach irreversible heights for a generation of students.
Clearly more is needed and Congress should come back into session immediately to pass an emergency funding bill to provide the hundreds of billions of dollars in new resources we need.
But for this emergency funding to make a real difference, we also need an emergency mindset that pushes past the traditional ways of funding education to address the new needs of students and families. That means sending emergency funds not just to schools and districts but also directly to families in need.
At the top of this emergency funding response should be resources to help schools open safely where they can and run effective distance learning programs where they must. These funds are necessary to cover both the extra costs of offering in-person, small group instruction for the kids who need it most and those of running high-quality online learning.
To maximize the effectiveness of these investments in schools, an extra $200 billion in funding should be paired with a commitment to make it easier for students to move between in-person and online options as family circumstances demand.
At the same time, if a school district school provides only in-person learning and parents have safety concerns, they should be able to send their child to an online program offered by a different school within their district or in another district.
Similarly, if parents feel their children can have their needs met only through a small group in-person learning environment, they should have the option to transfer into a school that can provide that safely.
In communities where we can’t safely bring students together in traditional school buildings, small group in-person instruction opportunities through microschools or learning pods will be essential. This is particularly important for students with special needs, English language learners and those who have fallen several grade levels behind.
While wealthy families have moved quickly to create these opportunitiesfor their own children, we have been slow to respond with changes to public funding to make it an opportunity for everyone.
The childcare sector provides a model for an equitable approach to microschools and pods. We have seen how public investments in home-based childcare options have allowed a diverse range of entrepreneurs — particularly women of color — to create and run centers that serve less affluent families in their communities.
By providing funding directly to families — through a $2,000 direct payment per child to families up to 200% above the poverty line and a $8,000 tax credit for families up to 400% above the poverty line — we can ensure that the children who need this kind of safe in-person environment the most are able to get it.
Of course, the safest in-person learning opportunity for students this year is also one of the oldest: homeschooling. Parents already find themselves playing a much larger role in guiding their children’s learning. Indeed, “home school curriculum” is among the year’s most searched terms online.
As with microschools and pods, ensuring equity will require thinking outside the box about emergency education funding. But we should not underestimate the interest and ability of communities of color to lead the way forward with these efforts and the way public support would enable them to do so.
The combination of $2,000 per child direct payments and $8,000 per child tax credits for low and middle-income families to cover the time and extra resources that go into home schooling would help open this option to millions of families.
That, in turn, could ease the huge pressures this year on local public schools while also providing more opportunities to create in-person environments that help children learn. America needs the help and we should help willing families provide it.
By focusing on student need and a commitment to more equitable access to a wide variety of learning options, we can help ensure not only that we keep learning going for students this year but provide the foundation for a stronger and more adaptable education system for decades to come.
Marc Porter Magee is chief executive of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. Follow him on Twitter: @MarcPorterMagee. Derrell Bradford is executive vice president of 50CAN. Follow him on Twitter: @Dyrnwyn