Recall candidates should support bold education reform now, not in 2022 – Long Beach Press Telegram

Education is shaping up to be a top issue of the recall election.

Leading Republican candidates have voiced support for upending California’s public school system. Each wants to see parents, not teachers unions, in the driver’s seat, a shift they say is the key to restoring learning.

Specifically, they’re behind efforts to put an initiative on the 2022 ballot to allow parents to pull their children from public school and take some of the taxpayer funds used to educate those students with them. Parents would receive approximately $14,000 to pay for alternative education, like private or homeschool. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) – something more states are allowing each year – provide all students, regardless of income or zip code, the means necessary to access a quality education.

But candidates and voters need not wait for 2022 or a new governor to enact such a program. These accounts can be established now to immediately help students, and show proof of concept for a more expansive, permanent program pitched to voters next year.

Thanks to federal COVID relief, California schools are receiving over $15.3 billion in additional, one-time funding to help students recover from the extended classroom closures. School districts, which control the bulk of this money, have flexibility on how to spend it, but must use at least 20 percent to address learning loss. The most straightforward and evidence-based method to get students back up to grade level is through supplemental ESAs.

These parent-controlled accounts could be offered to all students, or to targeted groups who need more help. Similar to permanent ESA programs, parents could only spend the funds on pre-approved, educational expenses, just as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program debit cards may only be used to purchase food items.

With an ESA, a student could access one-on-one tutoring with a state-certified teacher in the subject(s) where they need the most help. Students with disabilities could use access support services they missed out on while not in school. A broader program would provide parents of lesser means the resources needed to put their children in private schools where they’d receive in-person instruction during public school closures, like Governor Gavin Newsom’s children did.

McKinsey & Company studied the impact of school closures, finding students were, on average, four months behind in reading and five in math. Learning loss for minority and low-income students was even more severe. Worse, this was the “optimistic scenario” because findings were derived from in-person assessments this spring, therefore excluding the many California students still stuck at home at the time.

Districts should spend as much of their one-time federal aid on students as possible, but even allocating the bare-minimum 20 percent to an ESA program would be transformative for children. If Sacramento City Unified did so, each child could receive over $1,300 in aid. In Los Angeles and Fresno, students could receive over $2,000. Even districts receiving lower amounts, like San Diego and San Francisco, have the ability to offer students around $1,000 in aid.

The effort to drive substantive change in California schools via a 2022 ballot proposal is a worthy one, but we’d be mistaken to believe it’s the only way to truly reform education. The interests of California kids have been punted long enough. We have the money to help them. Now is the time.

Chantal Lovell is communications director at the California Policy Center, a nonprofit working to eliminate public-sector barriers to freedom.