Schools of the State

We have all gone through it as children. The joys of summer fade, the weather cools, the days get shorter, and the school doors swing open. For most kids – and I was certainly one of them – it is not a time of joy.

But these days, it can be downright depressing. The hysterical pandemic-related school shutdowns, notably, have done far-reaching and long-lasting damage. Released in July, “Education’s long COVID:2022–23 achievement data” reveals stalled progress toward pandemic recovery. As former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Bruno Mano explains, “The assessment provider NWEA reports that students in grades three to eight lost ground in reading and math during the 2022-23 school year. On average, they need four more months in school to catch up to pre-pandemic levels…”

This assessment aligns with the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results. The scores on the reading and math tests administered in October-December 2022 showed the steepest declines ever recorded since the tests were first administered.

The bad news doesn’t end with academics; student mental health is also deteriorating. A CDC analysis declares that from April 2020 to October 2020 – when the pandemic first peaked, and the shutdowns were in full swing – the proportion of mental health-related visits to emergency departments rose by 24% over pre-pandemic levels for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for children aged 12–17. “By April 2022, 70% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of children seeking school mental-health services compared to pre-pandemic levels.”

One of the attempted fixes for the various student problems was the American Rescue Plan, which saw the feds throw $190 billion at the problem. But a 10-month examination by The 74 shows that many districts haven’t used the funds with the urgency intended. Some have barely tapped monies that advocates say are “critical for academic recovery, while others have pumped millions of dollars into major classroom additions, upgrading athletic fields, and other expenditures unrelated to the pandemic.”

While, as noted above, the reading and math NAEP tests administered in October-December 2022 showed the steepest declines ever, things weren’t exactly terrific before the shutdowns. As The 74’s Kevin Mahnken wrote in June, the 2022 NAEP scores “widen the aperture on the nation’s profound academic slump.” In doing so, the latest test serves “as a complement to the 2020 iteration of the same test, which showed that the math and English skills of 13-year-olds had noticeably eroded even before the emergence of COVID-19.”

Americans have been taking note of the bad news. A recent poll found that just 35% of Republican voters and 46% of Democratic voters are satisfied with the performance of their local public school. So it is hardly surprising that almost half of all parents “have decided on or are currently considering” a different school for one or more of their children, per a National School Choice Week poll.

Parents are indeed acting. In addition to becoming more involved in their local school board elections, they are taking advantage of the private option in states that allow it.

Indiana is reporting a 20% increase in its voucher program.

  • Florida made its K-12 scholarships universal this year by removing income limits, and Step Up for Students, the administering organization, recently said it had awarded 268,221 income-based scholarships, up from 183,925 at the same time a year ago.
  • West Virginia’s universal ESA program, entering its second year, has received 6,323 applications for the coming school term, up from roughly 3,600 last year.
  • Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office reports that the state’s new ESA program received 29,025 applications during a month-long window.
  • Savvy politicians should act on America’s rising passion for school choice. A YouGov national poll in February disclosed that of 634 parents interviewed, 59.7% support Education Savings Accounts, with 14.6% opposed and 25.7% undecided. Most interestingly, even more Democrats than Republicans are in favor – 67.5% to 61.3%. Additionally, support for ESAs is strong among Black parents, with 70.3% in favor of the program. By comparison, 59.1% of White parents and 50.8% of Hispanic parents support ESAs.

All in all, 2023 has seen a record 19 states expand school choice, according to National School Choice Week. “These states have implemented or are getting ready to implement programs that will likely enroll millions of students. The majority of this year’s school choice expansions, including open enrollment in traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling – are designed to be available to all or almost all students.”

While Blacks, Whites, Democrats, and Republicans favor choice in increasing numbers, the education establishment ignores them and stubbornly clings to business as usual. Most recently, First Lady Jill Biden and two national teacher union leaders, Randi Weingarten and Becky Pringle, appeared at an event at a school in Wisconsin, where tired old bromides ruled the day.

For example, Biden said that educators accept the call to teach “out of love for what we do and who we teach.” She also minimized the narrative of divisions between parents and their children’s teachers.

Maybe someone should tell the First Lady that just 35% of Republican voters and 46% of Democratic voters are satisfied with the performance of their local public school.

As expected, the teachers unions and their enormous war chest are amping up their fight against parental choice. In Nebraska, the legislature created K-12 scholarships this year worth about $5,000 each, with an initial cap of $25 million. Like similar programs in other states, they are funded by individual or corporate donors who receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions. Parents can use the money for the school of their choice.

But in June a group called Support Our Schools Nebraska, having received $800,000 from the National Education Association and $262,000 from the union’s Nebraska affiliate, launched a petition to repeal the scholarships via referendum on the November 2024 ballot.

John Tillman, CEO of the American Culture Project, reports that the Virginia Education Association increased its political contributions 11-fold between 2020 and 2022, and it’s on track to break that record this year. The union will undoubtedly spend as much as is needed to fend off Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s ongoing push for ESAs in the state.

Also, in Nevada, hundreds of students will lose their scholarships after a one-time funding increase expires. The Democrat and union-dominated state legislature has rejected a proposal to increase program funding this year.

Whatever gains parents have made and will make in the future will be hard fought. The NEA, which has money to burn, spends a great deal of it on politics.

As Elisabeth Messenger, CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, notes, the NEA spent $49.2 million (over 99% of it going to Democrats) on political activities in 2021-22, surpassing the amount spent on membership representation by $3.5 million.

No one knows how all this will play out during the election season. With more and more Democrats unhappy with the education status quo, it could get interesting.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.