by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Part I of The pandemic’s silver lining: the growing popularity of school choice discussed the changes that have popularized school choice and made it one of the most important issues to emerge from the pandemic. It highlighted school choice changes and expansions in other states as well as legislation to remake and expand existing choice programs in North Carolina. Part II discusses two more ways to expand school choice in North Carolina.
Legislation to address learning loss
We are all happy more students are returning to the classroom this fall. A big question looms over their return, however: How much learning have returning students lost?
Results from recent snapshots of student progress are not encouraging. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt has reported almost a quarter (23 percent) of North Carolina public school students are at risk of academic failure and haven’t made sufficient progress to be promoted to the next grade. Moreover, the percentage of students who fail to reach proficiency has increased from 42 percent in 2019 to 54 percent in 2020.
How does North Carolina meet this challenge? A consensus is emerging that tutoring is the most promising strategy to help students with learning loss. Significant research (see here and here) shows that tutoring supports improved math and reading outcomes and can also aid social and motivational outcomes.
The disparate impacts from the political response to the pandemic argue against a one-size-fits-all approach and for more personalized solutions allowing parents and students to find what works best for them. Tutoring is the answer.
A popular and effective way to empower parents to deliver personalized education options is an Education Savings Account (ESA). ESAs empower parents to access a state-funded account to pay for things like tuition, speech therapy, tutoring, technology, learning camps, or other services.
Who would be eligible to receive a learning loss ESA? Public school students who do not achieve proficiency in math, reading, or science would be eligible to receive funding for additional assistance. Early estimates place the total cost of providing students with a $500 ESA at $225 million. Parents could use that money to access tutoring, learning camps, technology, or other supplemental services that best fit their child’s needs.
That’s a lot of money, but there are strong reasons to move forward. North Carolina is already receiving $3.6 billion in Covid-19 relief funding under the American Rescue Plan Act. Initial estimates suggest that North Carolina could use between $95 million and $171 million in federal relief money for such a program. We shouldn’t forget North Carolina already has a popular ESA program in place for special-needs students. As such, the administrative infrastructure and guardrails are already in place and can be used to accommodate an expanded population.
The estimated costs of learning loss are too large to ignore. Learning Loss ESAs would be an effective way to lessen these impacts and empower parents to access the educational options that best fit the educational needs of their children.
Changes in the tax code
North Carolinians may have a significant opportunity to expand school choice without passing any additional legislation, and it may come via the Democrats and the federal government. The massive, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was a Christmas wish list of progressive priorities sold to the country under the banner of Covid relief. Remarkably, the bill also included a $110 billion expansion of the child tax credit. The credit applies to families making less than $150,000 annually and includes a refundable tax credit of $3,600 for children under six and $3,000 for children ages six to 17. If the credit is larger than the family’s tax burden, it is paid out as a cash grant.
It should be noted, however, that it is a one-year provision. In 2022, the credit will revert to $2,000 per child and become only partially refundable. Still, some prominent Democrats think there may be support for making the tax credit expansion permanent.
The provision could have a significant impact on low- and moderate-income families but also on those who receive some assistance and hope for better educational options. The Opportunity Scholarship voucher was originally pegged at 75 percent of average private school tuition. The maximum award, however, has remained at $4,200 since the program began in 2014, while the costs of tuition continue to increase. The average tuition for private elementary school in North Carolina is about $8,500. For Catholic elementary schools, the average elementary school tuition is $4,840.
The tax credit can be a significant factor in helping families bridge the tuition gap. Combining the credit with other existing resources, such as vouchers, ESAs, or grants, can mean the difference between being trapped in an unsafe school and having the opportunity to attend a better school. With this unexpected help, leaders should work to publicize the tax credit’s availability and the benefits for both students and their families.
The political response to the pandemic and its aftermath have seriously impacted how children are educated. The failure of many communities and schools to address these challenges has highlighted how school choice can help parents address the educational needs of their children. New programs to provide ESAs for students with learning loss, improvements to the state’s three choice programs, and the expansion of federal tax credits for children will aid these efforts and ultimately provide better educational options for children.