How Congress could help make up for COVID learning loss

March 23, 2023

Originally published in the Washington Examiner.

As the years during and after the pandemic have demonstrated, America is rethinking education. More families are homeschooling than ever. More states are passing flexible education choice scholarships — including states such as Utah, where past opposition to such policies has been strong. It’s time for federal law to reflect these changes and demands.

The recent wave of success for education choice is building momentum, not just in the states but also in Congress. From Arizona and Utah in the West to Florida and West Virginia in the East, states nationwide are enacting universal education choice policies that make it possible, for the first time, for every student to have feasible access to the type of schooling best suited for his or her unique learning needs. In Congress, proposals seem aimed at freeing up public resources in ways that benefit individual families and students.

Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) recently reintroduced his RECOVER Act. The bill allows American Rescue Plan funding (currently earmarked for public schools) to go to parents as scholarships intended to help children overcome COVID-19 learning loss. Eligible expenses include tutoring services, private school tuition, therapies for students with special needs, and more. In a lot of ways, it seems it would function similarly to scholarships that states have been adopting.

Part of the rationale for allowing public funds to go to parents is that 75% of Utah’s American Rescue Plan funds have not been spent yet — though states have through September 2024 to use them. The idea is that parents can do a better job using the funds for their intended purpose: helping children overcome pandemic learning loss.

Responding to learning loss has been top of mind for state leaders. In fact, a Utah legislator introduced a bill during the most recent state legislative session to create microgrants to help students access supplemental education, including tutoring. Idaho and Indiana set up microgrant programs in prior years to overcome pandemic learning loss, so the idea of using education choice to help students catch up is nothing new.

The RECOVER Act faces long odds in the Senate. However, the bill could build support among House members, giving time for Congress to vet ways it can support states as they move further in the direction of education choice and flexibility for parents.

Likewise, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has reintroduced the CHOICE Act. The bill would allow low-income families the choice of directing Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds to their school or a 529 plan, and it would expand allowable expenses for 529 plans so they could be spent on private school tuition, homeschooling, or other eligible expenses.

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan that helps pay for future education costs. Though authorized by the IRS code, the state-sponsored plans were designed to encourage parents to save for higher education. However, in 2017, the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act allowed savings in a 529 account to be used for K-12 private school tuition. Proposals to let 529 funds be spent on broader homeschooling expenses were left out of the law. Lee’s proposal would expand eligible K-12 expenses to include certain homeschool costs along with private school and college.

While the RECOVER and CHOICE acts have an uphill political battle in the short term, their merits are worth discussing since the public is asking for this type of choice. Though education policy belongs at the state level, it makes both political and policy sense to consider federal policy reforms that work within existing federal frameworks to give individual families and students the flexibility and choice in education that is sweeping the nation. It’s time for Congress to give these changes a serious look.

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