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‘Parents know best’: Rep. Burgess Owens wants to fund school choice at national level

Owens said he wants to empower parents using unused pandemic funds, but critics say his bill would hurt public schools

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Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, speaks at an event for candidates in the GOP primary election in South Jordan on June 28, 2022.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, speaks at an event for candidates in the GOP primary election at the Awaken Event Center in South Jordan on June 28, 2022. Owens says he will reintroduce legislation to use excess pandemic money to help K-12 students catch up academically.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens wants to take school choice to the national level — at least temporarily — to help K-12 students catch up from COVID-19 learning losses.

Emboldened by a new GOP majority in the U.S. House, Owens sponsored a bill recently that would offer children scholarships that could be used to pay for private school tuition or private tutoring.

“Education should be looked at as a civil right,” Owens told the Deseret News in an interview. “Every child, no matter what their background, race, creed, or ZIP code has great potential when given the same opportunities.”

Typically, state lawmakers decide whether to give families the option of spending public education funds on private school, tutoring or other educational support. But Owens wants to compel districts to give parents choices regarding the use of already allocated federal education funds.

A new Harvard/Stanford analysis found that school closures resulted in students falling more than a half a school year behind in math and roughly a quarter a year of instruction behind in reading. Some poor students fell even further behind, according to the study.

With so many children needing remedial instruction and interventions, Owens said he wants to empower parents to make decisions about how to help children catch up.

The Raising Expectations with Child Opportunity Vouchers for Educational Recovery (RECOVER) Act would allow parents and school districts to tap into funds already allocated under President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

Under the American Rescue Plan legislation, the U.S. Department of Education distributed $122 billion in March 2021 to states and school districts to help open classrooms and address the impacts the pandemic had on students’ learning.

Two years later, approximately 77% of the allocated money still hasn’t been spent across the country, according to Owens. The state of Utah and its school districts received a total of $615 million in education funds.

The Utah State School Board confirmed to the Deseret News that roughly 75% of those funds are still unspent, but spokesperson Kelsey James said that Congress gave school districts until Sept. 30, 2024, to spend the funds.

“It is important to note that 100% of these funds are obligated, meaning there is a plan for each dollar,” James said via email. She added that since the funds are the third tranche of federal education pandemic funds, the board has encouraged districts to spend the first two allocations before spending the latest funds.

Who should decide how to spend the remaining funds?

Although Education Secretary Miguel Cardona encouraged school districts in 2021 to “utilize these funds with the same sense of urgency the president and Congress used to pass the America Rescue Plan Act,” that instruction seems to have been ignored, with much of the money still unspent, according to Owens.

His bill would use that money to establish “child opportunity scholarships,” to help pay for educational expenses like private school tuition, tutoring services or education therapy for children with learning disabilities. The individual school districts would decide how much each student could receive, while the decision on how to spend the money would be left up to parents.

“Not only do the parents know best, but the districts know best how to facilitate, how to serve,” Owens said. He sees the education of the nation’s children as chiefly the responsibility of parents in partnership with local school administrators and teachers.

Owens’ scholarships would last as long as the individual school districts have American Rescue Plan funds left. Owens said the scholarships are meant to help students catch up in the aftermath of the pandemic, and he does not anticipate this spending to become a permanent fixture in future federal budgets.

Will this ‘punish’ public schools?

But some see his bill as an attempt to hurt public schools. Sasha Pudelski, director of advocacy for the School Superintendents Association, a national lobby group, said Owens’ bill would “punish schools” for following the rules, since the legislation’s spending deadline isn’t until 2024. She also criticized the legislation as “an attempt to grab (public school) resources and send them to private schools.”

Pudelski said the act already says funds should be used to help children catch up, and that schools should engage with parents over how to spend the money. She accused Owens’ bill of “pulling the rug out” from under districts that have already started spending the money, and she said the bill would pit parent against parent.

“Why should one group of parents who want a taxpayer handout to pay for private school get to take money away from what a much larger group of parents want,” she said.

While some have criticized this national push for parent choice in education, others are applauding the move.

Max Eden, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, told the Deseret News that although school districts were supposed to use the American Rescue Plan money to help children, he does not believe this has happened. He attributed this delay to lobbying by teachers’ unions.

“The ARPA money has largely gone unspent except for problematic ways like increasing teacher salaries and other personnel expenditures that will create a huge budget cliff,” he said.

Eden said he believes using “one-time” funding for ongoing expenses will cause budgetary problems for school districts in about two years, conveniently coinciding with the act’s deadline.

The remedy will require either an additional influx of federal funds or cuts to school personnel and programs that will be painful to surrounding communities, he said. Eden claims this is the desired outcome by teachers’ unions and said they have hampered American Rescue Plan spending up to this point by school districts.

“Given the relatively low amounts school districts have spent on tutoring and the higher amounts spent on personnel expenses or capital expenses, I think Owens is right that parents could spend this money better to help children,” he said.

While in the past, conservatives have said the federal government should stay out of education, Owens said this bill is not a “top-down federal mandate” and doesn’t have “strings attached.” Local school districts and parents would decide how to spend the money on a case by case basis, he said.

But while Pudelski agreed that including parents in a child’s education is important, she said school districts are already having “community discussions on how to best spend this unprecedented amount of federal funding.” She insisted that the Republican bill is not needed since there is “ample opportunity to provide schools with input.”

“It’s never been possible for a parent to go to the school and say, ‘you know, I’m not happy here. Give me some money, so I can send my kids to a religious school down the street,’” she said.

Congressional majority support

Owens believes his bill will pass the Republican controlled House, but he concedes beyond the House the bill has a difficult path, with Democrats in control of the Senate and Biden unlikely to support it.

Eden said the president would “never sign a bill like this,” because Democrats are “beholden” to teachers’ unions. However, he said he thinks the bill is a great “message bill” for Republicans.

Owens said he wants to send a message to parents that there are some in the nation’s capital attempting to give them options to help their kids.

He also said his bill is emblematic of the type of legislation the public can expect from a razor thin majority of Republicans in Congress.

“The GOP’s goal is to be innovative enough to ensure accountability, but allow for decisions to be made by each locality,” Owens said.