Last month marked two years since the pandemic swept across the country, causing the largest disruption to our nation’s education system in modern history. But at last, this spring brings an academic revival of sorts.
Schools are remaining open, mask mandates are disappearing and plexiglass dividers between students in their classrooms are coming down.
In the rush to return to normal, we owe it to our nation’s children to emerge from this pandemic transformed, not by going backwards, but ready to forge a better future for them with all we’ve learned.
Our starting point is challenging. Prior to the pandemic, America’s public schools were struggling to serve the needs of students, and since the pandemic, a study by McKinsey found students have fallen months behind as a result of school closures and disruptions. There were severe impacts on student mental health, too. Pew Charitable Trusts found students are reporting significantly increased levels of grief, anxiety and depression.
It’s also no surprise that there’s a growing distrust in public education. A survey by Ipsos found trust in teachers declined during the pandemic, and there’s been a subsequent decrease in the number of students enrolling in public school.
Those are serious setbacks, but there are reasons for optimism. The pandemic put a spotlight on a myriad of possibilities for the future of education. Notably, it illustrated a desperate need by families for a broadened ecosystem of options for their children, with funding flexibility to create more equity in choice. And it elevated the power of parents to blaze new educational pathways for their children.
The Associated Press recently reported that homeschooling remains a popular choice for parents, despite schools reopening. And, private schools and public charter schools have witnessed increased enrollment. But choice, in and of itself, isn’t enough. Policymakers must continue to seek new ways to unbundle education systems, transforming old approaches into new and better learning options.
In Indiana, lawmakers, led by House Speaker Todd Huston, took the first step toward creating the nation’s first “parent-teacher compact” law. This innovative policy would allow parents to directly hire teachers. Educators would continue to be paid by the state and receive their health and retirement benefits, but this policy would enable parents and educators to enter into a peer-to-peer relationship to benefit individual students, without the hurdle of a district middleman. This individualized approach to education would give educators more freedom, families more flexibility and individual students the personalized experience they may need.
As we unbundle education, we need to reimagine all aspects of how education is delivered to students. One approach is enacting new part-time enrollment policies. Right now, students are defined by the school in which they’re enrolled. Lawmakers can improve the education experience by allowing students to have more flexibility, whereby a student can enroll in their local public school and easily access a portion of their education funding to also enroll part-time in a private school, with an online provider, or engage in another learning experience that benefits the child’s education.
Another approach that complements unbundling is rethinking education transportation options. Last year, Gov. Doug Ducey awarded $18 million in grants to modernize Arizona’s K-12 transportation system, including direct-to-family grants to help close transportation gaps. In Oklahoma this year, Gov. Kevin Stitt proposed changing Oklahoma’s school transportation funding formula to expand how public school buses can serve students. And Florida’s Legislature recently passed legislation to create a new $15 million transportation grant program that encourages districts to create innovate approaches to school transportation, including carpooling and ride sharing apps, for both school-of-choice families and traditional school students.
Those are just a few examples, and we must continually look for more ways to unbundle and reimagine education. The pandemic saw an explosion of families, in all communities and from all demographics, embrace micro schools, homeschooling and customized learning pods. Rather than trying to limit these families, we should give them access to direct funds to further personalize and benefit their child’s out-of-school learning experience.
That’s what Gov. Brad Little has championed in Idaho. In response to school closures in 2020, Little used federal emergency COVID relief funds to provide direct grants to families to support students who were no longer learning in school. And this year, Little signed the Empowering Parents Grant Program into law, giving qualifying families up to $3,000 to use for tutoring, educational material, digital devices or internet connectivity.
All of this and more is possible, but it requires policymakers to embrace something many have heard me repeat: Reform is never finished, and success is never final.
Transforming our nation’s education system and ensuring students receive the individualized experience to unlock potential and lifelong success require continual forward momentum, especially after two years of disruptions. We have to keep moving, keep reimagining, keep transforming.
This commitment to excellence is a point of pride for Florida. Last year, Florida’s Legislature passed some of the most significant improvements and expansions to the state’s school-choice programs. And this year, lawmakers strengthened the charter school law, expanded the Florida Empowerment scholarship program, created a new financial literacy requirement for high school graduates and ensured parents are better informed of their child’s progress through online diagnostic progress monitoring and end-of-year summative tests.
Settling for familiar, traditional approaches to education shortchanges our children. They deserve more learning options today and skills for a future we’ve yet to imagine.
Coming out of this pandemic, lawmakers across the country should embrace every student-centered policy possible, and make year-after-year progress in transforming education the guaranteed way to improve their state, serve their constituents and deliver on the promise of a quality education for all of their students.
Jeb Bush was Florida’s 43rd governor. He is founder and chairman of ExcelinEd and ExcelinEd in Action.
This story was originally published April 15, 2022 3:52 PM.