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COVID-19 crisis: A terrible thing to waste

Cookie-cutter online learning programs offered by Kentucky school districts during the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring failed to attract thousands of students and fell short in keeping multitudes of others engaged.

Online participation among students in Fayette County Public Schools, Kentucky’s second-largest district, dropped from 85% to 58% between the first and eighth weeks, according to state data.

More than 11,000 of 42,500 students enrolled in Fayette Schools in the spring started but then dropped out of the online program within eight weeks, joining 6,400 additional students who hung it up as soon as the shutdown occurred.

That 18,000 Fayette County students learned little-to-nothing during the last part of the school year should leave no doubt: one educational size doesn’t fit all – whether it’s forcing each child to attend a particular public school or take a single online program because that’s the only game in town.

No one knows how long COVID-19 will continue to wreak havoc on school plans, so parents need options and resources.

The federal School Choice Now Act sponsored by Republicans Sens. Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott from Tennessee and South Carolina, respectively, and supported by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposes one-time funding to scholarship granting organizations to offer direct assistance to aid parents in securing the best educational setting for their children during the coming school year.

President Trump wants $105 billion set aside for schools in the next stimulus bill, some of which he says should go directly to parents “to send their child to a public, private, charter, religious, or home-school or other choice” if their public school remains closed.

“The money should follow the student,” Trump says.

Why not?

The money is, after all, for educating students.

Even if parents choose an online-at-home approach, the dollars could help them tailor a virtual program to their children's needs and interests.

The senators’ legislation also includes a permanent federal tax-credit scholarship program providing parents with options less likely to be interrupted by crises like COVID-19.These scholarships could be used in many ways, including, for example, assisting parents in continuing the educational experience and providing services for special-needs children throughout a crisis, a scenario often less-likely to happen with total reliance on public schools. These ideas would greatly enhance educational freedom in Kentucky, where parents currently have among the fewest choices of any state in the nation.

The use of school choice to help mitigate a crisis isn’t a new idea.

Hurricane Katrina was followed by a quicker recovery in 2005 when New Orleans rapidly rebuilt its entire school system around charter schools.

The hurricane resulted in New Orleans’ students being allowed to attend any school they chose, no matter where they lived.

New Orleans essentially became an all-charter school district and remains largely so 15 years following Katrina.

The results are nothing short of incredible.

Multiple sources report on the district’s dramatic improvements in many categories, including overall student achievement as well as high-school and college graduation rates.

Ideologically driven opponents chafe when parental choice is credited with fueling such dramatic reforms.

Instead, they claim it’s because New Orleans spent a bit more money on students.

The “more money” argument doesn’t hold water in Kentucky, though.

Despite increasing per-pupil spending by an inflation-adjusted 50% since the much-ballyhooed Kentucky Education Reform Act passed 30 years ago, only 11% of our state’s Black eight-graders achieved proficiency on federal math tests in 2019.

Imagine how New Orleans’ children whose futures were threatened as Katrina’s waves washed ashore years ago, look back today and say the educational opportunities arising out of that flooded city turned a terrible tragedy into a lifelong triumph.

Will Kentucky’s children be able to look back on COVID-19 and say, “thank you for not letting our minds and futures go to waste in this crisis?”

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide.

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