K-12 education was broken long before the pandemic. Let’s rethink it

COVID-19 has disrupted American life in many ways, but its effect on our children has been particularly devastating.

Experts estimate that the shift to remote learning last spring alone set students of color back three to five months in math. Learning losses are concentrated among students from less-educated homes, who lose 55% more than their more advantaged classmates. School districts report that more students than ever failed a class this fall. Thousands of the youngest students in the nation’s largest school districts have simply stopped showing up for “class,” and 20% of students in the United States still lack the technology to show up, even if they wanted to.

Parents have had enough, and rightly so. Recent polling confirms that levels of dissatisfaction are at an all-time high, with more than 3 out of 5 people saying K-12 education is on the wrong track. The curtain has been pulled on our education system, and parents finally see it for what it is: an inflexible, ossified, bureaucratic system that serves adults and politics before children. But our education system was broken long before the pandemic. If someone who lived in the late 1800s were to teleport to the present day, that person would recognize almost nothing about life in America. Nothing, that is, except our schools, which have changed remarkably little in the last 125 years.

Most students still attend the brick-and-mortar school assigned based on their ZIP code (though these schools are now far larger). They sit in rows focused (or not) on one teacher in the front of the classroom. Students are largely in school buildings from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. despite modern research suggesting a teenager’s brain is not fully awake until 9 or 10 a.m. They are still grouped into grades based on age rather than ability. Schools are organized into districts in which boundaries are usually unchanged, despite shifting demographics. School in the U.S. is still 12 grades, while students in other nations are encouraged to pursue professional apprenticeships throughout high school. Possibly the most ludicrous feature of our system is that our school year is still designed with months off in the summer — despite all that we know about the learning lost and widening achievement gap due to summer vacation.

Our 19th-century “factory model” system adequately served generations of students (less so those who were segregated into inferior schools) through much of the 20th century. Yet, it works poorly for most children in the 21st century, and it clearly was unable to transition rapidly in the national crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite medical research finding that children are not significant transmitters of COVID-19, many schools continued to deliver instruction remotely despite documented learning losses. A resistance to school reopening is closely correlated to areas with strong teachers unions — one of which said the push to reopen schools is “rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny.” So much for “follow the science.”

Parents are demanding change, especially once they learn that our nation spends $15,424 on average per student for a year of district public schooling. Seventy-seven percent of parents with children in public school support policies that would turn over a portion of that money to them to pay for educational materials themselves. Such “backpack funding” where the money follows the child must be a central feature of systemic education reform.

Imagine the transformation if students were the primary source of public school funding. Schools would be focused on attracting and retaining students by offering distinctive, high-quality, responsive educational products. The power of politicians and special-interest groups would be reduced. The biggest beneficiaries would be low-to-middle-income parents, who lack any real power in the current system. Placing at their disposal the significant resources expended on their education would shift power with great consequence.

Imagine the transformation if we deregulated and decentralized public schools, giving principals and teachers greater power to create effective learning. That means eliminating or greatly reducing the middleman — schools districts that siphon off 50 cents of every education dollar while adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and political control. Reducing bureaucracy means that empowered public schools, operating much like charter schools, could hire the best teachers (and fire the worst) while paying high salaries to the best teachers.

We currently fund a broken system rather than students. We fund public schools rather than public education. Backpack funding, other forms of school choice, and a push to decentralize the public system reverse this reality. These policies take as their maxim that all parents should be empowered to choose where, when, and how their child is educated. They have been exceptionally successful in states such as Florida, a standout pioneer of educational innovation. Although all types of school choice expand educational opportunities, the ultimate 21st-century policy is the Education Savings Account, or ESA. A large majority of the public (81%) have said they support ESAs as they give “more freedom and flexibility for parents.”

ESAs empower parents to tailor the education of their child by putting a portion of that child’s per-pupil funding in a savings account. These accounts are placed at the disposal of all eligible families, who can use them for approved educational expenses — private school tuition, tutoring in a specific subject, enrollment in community college, software, homeschooling materials, extracurricular activities, and more. Schools, tutors, and educational providers, therefore, receive their funding not through political processes but consumer choice, making providers accountable and responsive to students.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced all of us to reconsider the status quo. So, let’s pursue truly transformative reforms. Throwing more money at a broken system will be only a bandage on a deep wound.

Clint Bolick is a justice on the Arizona Supreme Court and Hoover Institution research fellow. Kate Hardiman is a law student and former high school teacher. This article is adapted from their new book Unshackled: Freeing America’s K-12 Education System, published by Hoover Institution Press.