Opinion: Expanded school choice can help pandemic learning losses

Buzz Brockway, a former Republican legislator from Gwinnett, is vice president of public policy for the right-leaning think tank Georgia Center for Opportunity, which promotes school choice.

In this guest column, Brockway discusses solutions to pandemic learning loss.

By Buzz Brockway

Georgia students are flocking back to their classrooms, but in addition to the usual assortment of back-to-school supplies, kids are taking something else with them — profound learning losses from the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2022 research brief reveals that K-2 students are the greatest victims of learning loss. Furthermore, the literacy gap between minority and white students is now larger post-pandemic. Parents and teachers know that the earliest years of instruction are often the most impactful.

Another report, this one from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts Performance Adult Division, found that students in the Peach State are three to six months behind due to pandemic learning losses. The report notes that learning loss could negatively impact “long-term academic outcomes” in our state absent robust intervention. Here again, the impacts are hardest on kids from low-income, minority families, and those where English is a second language.

In other words, the families who could least afford to navigate the disruptions are impacted the most. For example, the report found students in majority white schools were four months behind in math and three months behind in reading. Contrast that with majority black schools, where students were behind by six months in reading and math on average.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Yet many Georgians with K-12 students in their homes don’t need to see the mountains of data to know the ill effects of learning loss from COVID-19 school shutdowns. Families lived with academic frustrations and social isolation daily. Unfortunately, those stories were sometimes downplayed by some in the media, often overshadowed by political agendas wrapped up within the pandemic.

For a solution, the report strongly recommended federal COVID-19 relief funds be used to combat learning losses and put the best interventions in place. Families and taxpayer dollars deserve to go directly to the kids, particularly those impacted most from losing valuable academic instruction during critical moments for student development.

Recently, Harvard economist Tom Kane led a study on the impact of learning loss and offered solutions. One of his findings was that “high-poverty districts that went remote in 2020-21 will need to spend nearly all their federal aid on academic recovery to help students recover from pandemic-related achievement losses.” Those funds, passed under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, only require that 20% be spent on learning-loss recovery.

Simply put, 20% is not nearly enough resources to tackle this problem, particularly given the stakes for long-term consequences of missed instruction. Of course, politics plays a role, given that some politicians and administrators want access to taxpayer dollars, and not necessarily in a way that benefits the kids of Georgia.

Taxpayers deserve to know that the federal dollars provided for COVID-19 relief fully help the students in the classroom. School districts can make this a reality by allocating all federal taxpayer funds toward rectifying learning loss.

Fortunately, most parents know what’s best for their kids. Polling has made it clear that parents want learning-loss recovery to be a high priority for their child’s school. In this election year, candidates and elected officials would be wise to make this an issue in their campaigns. Parents should demand this of their candidates and then hold them accountable for eliminating learning loss for every student. Politicians shouldn’t be able to shut down schools and shirk responsibility or public accountability.

One of the striking differences in education over the last few years is an obvious but important one. Schools that didn’t close didn’t experience learning loss. The fact is backed up by a new study that reveals Sweden experienced no learning loss or any increase in unequal academic achievement measures.

Here in Georgia and across the country, kids in private schools experienced similar outcomes if their schools remained open. It’s a reminder that while public schools need sufficient funding to rectify learning loss, parents need more school choice options when the government does fail them and their child.

This is even more evident given that a pluralistic society has many families valuing different learning styles for their kids. And that’s a good thing. The goal should be to lift all Georgians instead of endless political fights and cultural wars that mostly benefit the politicians and bureaucracy.

Supporting parents and educational options is the right way to address learning loss. Merely empowering the same individuals that created the new hurdles Georgians face is a losing strategy for all those kids that put so much of their trust in us.