Trusting parents to make the most of COVID relief funds

Our kids are struggling. This pandemic has been hard on all of us. Though the virus has largely spared our young ones, its secondary effects have not. The shutdown of schools — whether for a few weeks or now over a year — has left severe scars on our students. Our kids are experiencing other epidemics: an epidemic of youth suicides, an epidemic of failing grades, an epidemic of learning loss.

Now an unexpected infusion of federal funds offers a fresh opportunity to bring our kids back up to grade level after a year of lost progress. We can’t sit on the sidelines and just watch as the education status quo gobbles up millions of dollars in one-time funds for bureaucrats’ pet projects.

A group of Wisconsin advocacy organizations recently teamed up on a letter advocating for the use of new Federal funds to focus on students directly as much as possible. A novel idea: what if we trusted parents to know what their kids need, and offered them the resources to deliver exactly that.

One option that should be looked at is giving families the funds directly along with a menu of academic and health services that can get their kids’ education back on track. Texas, Idaho, and other states are proving this model can work. Wisconsin was a leader twenty years ago in trusting parents over politicians when it comes to education; we should reclaim that mantle now.

Here’s the simple truth: if we give this money to big district bureaucracies, it will disappear into a maze of projects, upgrades, building renovations, and IT purchases that will ultimately make little to no difference in the lived experiences of students. The money will be frittered away on administrators’ pet projects and politicians’ priorities, rather than addressing real needs.

The State of Texas provides a model for family-directed COVID education dollars with its Supplemental Special Educational Services. The program makes nearly 60,000 students eligible to receive a one-time grant that families can use on a number of providers that have been vetted and approved by the Texas Education Agency. Idaho follows a similar model with its “Strong Families, Strong Students” program.

Depositing funds into online accounts for each family would let parents and students together choose pre-approved education and health services that will get them back to their top academic performances. Just as gifted and talented learners and students with special needs frequently have Individualized Learning Plans, the dollars in these accounts would be specifically and intentionally made available for the individualized learning needed by each child to get them back to scholastic success.

The array of services needed to restore students’ abilities and capacities for learning, as well as their actual knowledge and achievement, may vary. As a result, healthcare services such as counseling should also be made available to students as eligible resources for purchase with their accounts.

The road to education excellence was detoured by COVID-19 and the resulting virtual learning. It is imperative that administrators understand that the priority for the federal funding must be kids and their very individual education and mental health needs. That’s why government should hand over the money to the people it was intended to help: the students.

You can read our full policy short take on prioritizing children over buildings and bureaucracies here.

Rebecca Kleefisch is President of 1848 Project, Inc. and Wisconsin’s former Lieutenant Governor.