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Amid COVID-19’s Toll on Schools, Now More Than Ever, Students Need More Education Options

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Editor’s note: Jan. 23-29 is National School Choice Week. This is the third in a five-part series of commentaries exploring the successes and challenges of educational choice and the people fighting to make it available to all American schoolchildren. 

By the end of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic made us wonder whether the virus would ever abate.

Parents, specifically, also started asking when the sudden pox of D’s and F’s on student report cards was going to end.

After the prolonged closures of assigned schools around the country, reports rolled in from many districts that forcing students into full-time virtual learning, regardless of a child’s learning needs, had resulted in steep learning losses. 

As we enter the pandemic’s third year, some of the same parents who watched their children struggle with coursework in 2020-2021 must anticipate more to come: Chicago Teachers Union members refused to work in person two weeks ago; Cincinnati schools are going remote, and teachers unions in Ohio chose to blame district officials instead of being a part of a solution for getting kids back to class; and teachers union members in Milwaukee want to continue teaching online only and expect a “fight” with the school board there.

Parents who were asking when their children would get help with their schoolwork now have had to lower their expectations and ask when their students will be back in class at all. 

Parents looking for direction from President Joe Biden’s administration will find mixed signals. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said he believes schools can resume in-person learning (yet he also favors forcing teachers to be vaccinated).

But Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently praised the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teacher union. He said the union has done “so much for our country over the last couple of years,” despite working to keep schools closed to in-person instruction. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has said she would support members who chose to go on strike over COVID-19-related issues.

Fortunately, and just in time for National School Choice Week 2022, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., has a clear message for families: Your students should have options over where and how they learn.

“Parents should have the ability to choose a school for their child, based on their child’s individual needs, academic goals, and personal religious beliefs,” Lankford wrote in a resolution introduced just days before the weeklong annual celebration of school choice around the U.S.

The school closures that teacher unions either caused or applauded are just some of the reasons students need more learning options today.

Average test scores on the Nation’s Report Card had stalled or were slipping prior to the pandemic, and the new flurry of D’s and F’s referenced above are not reassuring. 

Today, though, parents have more on their mind than just test scores—even more than the pandemic and teachers union lobbying. Parents are justifiably concerned whether assigned schools reflect their values or are teaching lessons that contradict traditional American ideals, such as equality under the law.

For example, in December, the St. Paul School Board, which governs Minnesota’s second-largest school district, voted to require students to take ethnic studies before they graduate, emphasizing that the course includes ideas from critical theory, such as “power structures, forms of oppression, and inequities.” The course will teach students to “construct” their identities, while the district’s website links to organizations that advocate critical race theory, such as the radical leftist organization Learning for Justice, and includes resources for teaching that America is systemically racist.

Lankford’s resolution says school choice is nothing short of a “necessity,” because when parents find textbooks and lessons that teach racially discriminatory ideas such as those in St. Paul, they can act immediately to find another place for their child.

Fortunately, state lawmakers are already moving on the issue. South Carolina lawmakers are considering an education savings account proposal, similar to the accounts available to students in neighboring North Carolina and in nearby Tennessee.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called on lawmakers to create more K-12 private school choice options in her annual address to the Legislature last week. Lawmakers in Kansas, Kentucky, and Missouri, to name a few, are also expected to consider parental choice in education this year.

With the uncertainty created by the pandemic—and exacerbated by the Biden administration—along with declining student achievement levels and examples of educators pushing critical race theory’s prejudice in classrooms, National School Choice Week 2022 arrives just in time.

Tomorrow: Susan Kay Moses, a great-grandmother of two public charter school students in McAllen, Texas, explains why public charter schools are a solution for more and more families, offering options not always available at traditional public schools. 

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