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Sen. Romney is right on reopening public schools

As Congress finalizes a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, Sen. Mitt Romney proposes funds to assist schools as they reopen.

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, walks to the chamber for the final passage of the Democrat’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, March 6, 2021. Sen. Romney proposed several amendments to the bill, including new funding for education being used to reopen schools or aid parents.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Congress is finalizing a $1.9 trillion spending plan that includes $130 billion for K-12 education. How those funds will be spent will affect the futures of a generation of children. 

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats have proposed providing those funds to state departments of education to be distributed to school districts and public schools. But Congress and the Department of Education awarded more than $63 billion to state public education bureaucracies in 2020. According to Department of Education data, more than $50 billion of those funds remain unspent.  

With so much emergency funding still available, it’s unlikely that $130 billion in new federal aid for public schools systems will have a significant impact during the current school year or even this fall. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only $6.4 billion of the funds for state education agencies will be spent in 2021. CBO predicts that $90 billion will be spent between 2023 and 2028. 

But American children need help today. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s tracking system, only 36% of school districts are currently providing full-time in-person learning. And about 1 in 6 high poverty school districts remain fully remote. 

For millions of American children, this month marks the year anniversary of the last time that they were allowed to be in a classroom. Researchers are only beginning to understand the academic effects of prolonged school closures. But there is broad agreement that many children, particularly those from lower income households, will have experienced significant learning losses. 

The consequences of school closures will be felt for decades. For example, UCLA researchers have predicted that school closures will broadly result in lower life expectancies for affected children. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco projected that the nation’s annual economic output would be a quarter of a percent lower on average over the next 70 years due to pandemic-related learning losses. 

Given these serious consequences, Congress should be focused on providing immediate assistance to ensure that schools safely reopen and American children assigned to closed public schools get the help they urgently need. 

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has a plan to do just that. He has proposed an amendment to the current budget reconciliation package to require that new funding be used to help schools reopen or provide immediate aid to parents whose children remain out of school.

Under Sen. Romney’s amendment, public school districts that have reopened for in-person learning would receive direct financial support. His legislation would define reopened as providing at least 50% of students the option of in-person classes at least 50% of the time. The rest of the funding would be made available in direct assistance to parents amounting to $2,500 per child for students assigned to closed public schools. 

This approach would begin to help public schools and students as soon as the funds are distributed. Public schools could spend the newest emergency aid to implement safety measures consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines or to upgrade ventilation systems. Growing evidence from public schools that have reopened since last summer shows that it is safe to do so with the right precautions. 

Parents of children who remain out of school could use their child’s $2,500 share of emergency funding to help them begin to recover from learning losses. If funds are distributed in the form of an education savings account, parents could use their child’s share for tuition to enroll in an open school, purchase tutoring, form a pandemic pod with other families, or pay for summer school. In short, parents could decide how best to help their children this year, rather than waiting on their public school systems to help them years from now. 

One of the many tragedies of the pandemic is that the nation’s leaders have failed a generation of school children. Now, Congressional Democrats are planning to double down on an approach that hasn’t reopened the country’s public schools or helped at-risk children by providing federal aid that won’t be spent for months or even years. 

Sen. Romney’s plan offers a new approach. It’s time to use federal funding to safely reopen public schools and help the children who are still suffering from prolonged school closures.  

Dan Lips is a visiting fellow with The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.