The coronavirus pandemic has deeply affected K-12 education. More than 124,000 private and public schools stopped in-person instruction in the wake of the pandemic, changing the lives of 51.1 million school children overnight.
Although private schools across the country have largely reopened, public schools remain closed in many localities, affecting millions of families.
As teachers and parents juggled virtual classrooms and quarantine mandates, Congress—through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act—appropriated $13.5 billion in special aid to state education systems, roughly a quarter of Washington’s annual K–12 expenditures.
Before states and governors even decided how and when to spend this burst of federal largesse, special interest groups were advocating for more federal money. CNN reported that the American Federation for Teachers called for an addition $175 billion in funding.
Currently, the Senate is considering a proposal that includes a massive new public school bailout. Far from being a targeted, temporary proposal, the spending measure would authorize $82 billion in new K-12 funds—a sum that exceeds the federal Department of Education’s entire annual budget.
With Christmas approaching, Congress may see this as a necessary gift to schools. However, the overall proposal would add nearly $1 trillion to the national debt, something Americans simply cannot afford.
There’s a better path forward: Congress can support education and families right now in three ways without spending more taxpayer dollars.
States are burdened with cumbersome federal regulations even though federal dollars represent less than 10% of K-12 education funding. The growth of federal regulations over the decades associated with that spending has caused states to incur a massive administrative load. Hence, the number of public school administrators has grown by 137% since 1960, whereas the student body has grown only 40%.
Congress could offer regulatory relief by pursuing the policies in the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act, which returns fiscal autonomy of education dollars to the states. It would allow states to spend their education dollars on any lawful education purpose under state law, such as resources to reopen schools or education savings accounts (ESAs) for families.
Congress could also make funding for the two largest K-12 federal education programs portable through micro-ESAs. Title I, which provides funding for lower-income school districts, holds the lion’s share of federal dollars spent on K-12 education at $15.6 billion.
Only a handful of experts, however, understand Title I’s complicated grant system, which is plagued by ineffective spending. Consequently, Title I dollars often don’t efficiently reach the neediest children.
Instead, micro-ESAs would allow each of the 11.5 million Title I eligible children to receive approximately $1,370 in their accounts. Parents could spend funds on approved education expenses such as private tutors or individual private courses.
Similarly, Congress could make the $13.5 billion under Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) portable. Instead of giving school districts sole spending authority, IDEA micro-ESAs would let parents spend funds on tutors, physical therapy and more. Eligible students would receive a set per-pupil allocation of $1,700, worth 90% of federal per pupil funding.
The third reform Congress could pursue to help families with their children’s education during the pandemic would be making Head Start dollars portable. Head Start, the largest federal preschool program, is rife with fraud and abuse.
And despite Head Start funding increasing by $8,000 per pupil since 1966, the program’s outcomes remain poor.
The Government Accountability Office also discovered the program was riddled with employee malfeasance, such as fraud and theft. Head Start’s poor track record makes it ripe for reform, and families deserve better options. Congress can achieve those ends by letting families use their share of Head Start funds to enroll their children in the preschool of their choice.
Rolling back federal regulations and making education funds portable would be a boon to states and families this Christmas season. Instead of another bailout, Congress should return more education decision-making to families.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times