With tens of millions of students facing months without consistent schooling, some states are stepping up to provide support directly to families.
This is counter to the education narrative we see that focuses on power struggles within a system that is supposed to be focused on kids. Instead, the focus has been on teacher strikes, congressional debates over funding, and court battles on when and how schools reopen.
Meanwhile, families have been left with the burden of continuing the education of their children with little support.
This has been especially hard on disadvantaged students. Parents of learners with disabilities are struggling with the loss of services, consistency, and relationships that were important assets in their child’s growth. Meanwhile, alarming numbers of mostly low-income students have gone unaccounted for — not logging into online sessions or communicating with schools in any way. Parents who must work — and cannot do so from home — have struggled to find the child care needed to continue as essential workers.
Families who have been able to provide some semblance of continued learning and socialization for their children out of their own pockets have to deal with districts accusing them of “exacerbate[ing] academic and opportunity gaps” because not every student in their district has access to the same advantages.
There is a ring of truth in this attack: students without the resources or support to continue learning will fall behind those who have access to those resources. But why does this fall on the shoulders of families who have been forced to provide continuing education opportunities for their children? The solution should not be to hold everyone back to ensure no learning takes place. The solution is to marshal resources to meet the challenges of today.
To do that, we need to focus on funding families, not the institutions that are failing to adapt to serve them.
Luckily, several states are living up to their “laboratories of innovation” moniker to create policies to do exactly that.
Governor Brad Little recently announced the “Strong Families, Strong Students” initiative, which includes $50 million for direct funding to families. Those eligible will be able to receive $1,500 per student (up to $3,500 per family) to use on a variety of educational purposes, including computer hardware, internet connectivity, tutoring, services for students with disabilities, fees for courses, and more. The program is open to all families regardless of income, but will be offered first to lower-income families.
The legislature recently passed a Covid-19 relief bill that includes $335 for each of the more than 1 million state households with children. There are no requirements on how the funds should be spent and no caps on how many families participate. The relief bill also created more access to school options through increased funding and expanded eligibility for the state’s school choice programs for students who are low-income or have a disability.
The “Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet” initiative will provide up to 5,000 low-income families with $1,500 to purchase a variety of educational materials, including technology, books, and more. Instead of a convoluted procurement process or routing through school districts and middlemen in the process, the initiative provides funding to families on an online platform where they can access dozens of vendors and purchase what they need directly.
When you fund families, the system responds to their needs — not the needs of the system itself. You do not need one reopening plan, a one-size-fits-all approach to employment decisions, or any of the other issues that require a top-down remedy.
One family might need child care more than anything. Another might need resources to increase their internet speed to allow for multiple children to learn online at once. Still another might need to pay for educational services for a child with a disability.
Other states would be wise to follow the lead of these innovators, and to double- and triple-down in a competitive effort to see which state can do the most to meet the educational needs of every family.
Adam Peshek is a senior fellow for education at the Charles Koch Institute.