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Perspective: The pandemic changed the way we view education

Families are more open to different types of schools in the aftermath of COVID-19

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Charlotte Perry writes in a workbook as she participates in school via their computers at home in Salt Lake City.

Charlotte Perry writes in a workbook as she and her sister, Rachel Perry, participate in school via their computers at home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges and opportunities in schooling children.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The COVID-19 pandemic left parents rethinking their choices about how to educate their children. During the pandemic, the number of parents who reported themselves as home-schooling more than doubled, while there was a decline in public school enrollment in some places. Closed schools and online learning encouraged parents to try alternative forms of schooling.

One Utah family tried several learning approaches for their daughter after her schooling went online, but restructuring their home for online learning took a toll on their family life. Soon, they sought out a district remote learning program specifically designed for families that home-school.

Their daughter’s academic needs kept changing, so they enrolled her at a charter school that has a hybrid model, where students can learn both remotely and in person. Eventually, the family will enroll her in private school.

Their experimental path to adapt schooling for their daughter may reflect the broader story of American families in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

From the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school years, many students migrated away from traditional public schools. Charter school enrollment growth increased significantly. Additionally, the number of parents who reported themselves as home-schooling more than doubled from the spring of 2020 to fall of that year — minorities had noteworthy increases.

The number of Black families home-schooling grew five times during that same time period, and the number of Hispanic families home-schooling nearly tripled from 2016 to 2022. Private school enrollment, after being stagnant for years, may have even seen a boost. 

These shifts reflect a loss of confidence among parents in these schools. School district decisions made during the pandemic did not address the variety of values, student needs, and family circumstances in our state — from the single parent needing their child to be in school while they work to the parent who objected to forcing their child to wear a mask.

As a result some of these parents chose a school they believed would better meet their unique needs.  

These realities illuminate a path for policymakers: support education policy that better meets the needs of parents and educators in our pluralistic society. Providing robust school options for students and families, and giving teachers ample resources will cultivate trust from families and educators.

Due to projections of billions of dollars in surplus funding going into the 2023 legislative session, Utah legislators can be uniquely responsive in this moment and make policy decisions to benefit parents and educators.

American people themselves support more choices. According to the 2022 Education Next Survey of Public Opinion, a majority of parents support expanded education choice, including more public charter schools, publicly funded scholarships for private school tuition, home schools and education savings accounts. Parents also support more funding for district public schools and pay raises for teachers.  

Arizona school choice bill

This year Arizona implemented the first universal education savings account program in the country. All 1.1 million students in the state can, if they choose, use up to $7,000 in public funds to pay for a wide range of educational services, including curriculum for home education, private school tuition, etc., instead of attending a public school. 

People like Kelly McLemore use this program and speak about it positively. Her son Aaron has autism and received speech and occupational therapies at a school paid for by the education savings account. It’s no surprise that when Arizona opened applications for its universal program, the application website was overwhelmed due to the high volume of families applying. 

Arizona was not an outlier in expanding education choice. Eighteen states either created or expanded school choice programs in 2021. 

Utah missed an opportunity to pass education savings account legislation last year, but the policy idea may benefit families. The public school enrollment data show that families desire additional options. The need for individualized help is especially pertinent, based on post-pandemic NAEP scores that revealed declines in math and reading achievement in Utah and across the nation.  

The negative impacts of the pandemic on student learning were more pronounced for minority groups and low-income families. Expanding education choice offers equitable support to these families.  

Two states this year sought to tackle pandemic-era learning losses through innovative education choice programs that are not full education savings accounts. Idaho and Indiana both passed bills creating microgrants to help families purchase educational materials and aids from public or private providers, outside what is available in a typical school program.  

As a complement to an education savings account proposal, Utah could consider creating similar supplemental grant programs for families to help students overcome pandemic-related learning loss. 

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has proposed increasing teacher compensation by $6,000 and increasing discretionary funding for school districts by 5%. Such a pay raise for teachers would help retain early-career teachers by giving them a higher percentage increase in pay than more established teachers would receive. It would also be a boost to the more than 50% of educators experiencing burnout, a reality exacerbated by the experience of teaching during the pandemic. 

One Utah educator who compared teaching during the pandemic to a juggling act, ”I compare it to spinning plates, you know? You’re just spinning the plates while trying to keep them balanced while herding cats at the same time.”

If educators continue to feel that they lack the resources and support to deliver high-quality instruction, there can be serious consequences. Teachers are one of the most important in-school factors for students’ learning. Increasing teacher salaries or offering stipends for teaching in certain subjects or regions may encourage educators to remain in the profession when burnout hits. 

Education savings accounts and microgrants also offer opportunities to improve the teaching profession. For example, one licensed classroom teacher in Arizona left the classroom to be the special education teacher for one elementary-school-age girl with multiple disabilities and special needs. She directly negotiated her salary and hours with the girl’s mother and taught in their home.

Like families and students, our educators have diverse interests, expertise and career goals. When we support a variety of school options for families, teachers will have expanded career options. 

Expanding education choice can build the confidence of parents in Utah’s education system. Increasing district school spending and teacher pay can do the same for educators.

We can forge a path in education that unites parents and teachers by better serving the diverse needs of both in our pluralistic society. We simply have to show that we have the will to do so. 

Christine Cooke Fairbanks is the Education Policy Fellow for Sutherland Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank in Salt Lake City.