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The Bottom Line President Trump Issues Executive Order Expanding Educational Opportunity

President Trump’s December 28 executive order expands educational opportunity by providing emergency learning scholarships to disadvantaged K-12 students to access in-person learning. These grants meet an urgent need among low-income, special needs, and minority students who have been disproportionately affected by school closures.

The President’s Executive Order on Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice outlines the disparity:

While some families, especially those with financial means, have been able to mitigate school disruptions through in person options such as homeschooling, private schools, charter schools, and innovative models like microschools and ‘learning pods,’ for many families, their children’s residentially assigned public school remains their only financially available option. Unfortunately, more than 50 percent of all public-school students in the United States began school remotely this fall. These children, including those with special needs, are being underserved due to the public education system’s failure to provide in-person learning options.

Executive Order on Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice

Despite the federal government providing $13 billion to states and school districts to enable safe reopening, half of all public K-12 schools remain fully or partially closed. The ongoing public school closures are in sharp contrast to private schools, which deem in-person schooling essential to student well-being and learning, and who, without receiving federal funding, safely reopened four months ago and have continued to offer daily in-person school.

Harmful Effects of Keeping Schools Closed

The results of K-12 public school unions’ and district leaders’ disastrous decisions to keep school campuses closed, barring children from receiving daily supervision and in-person instruction from their teachers, have been devastating. Child and teen mental health crises have seen a steep increase, including depression, self-harm, and suicide. A recent report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been “a 24% increase in emergency department visits by grade school children and a 31% increase for teens urgently in need of mental health care.”

The White House order also highlights a concern regarding unreported child abuse: “States have seen substantial declines in reports of child maltreatment while school buildings have been closed, indicating that allegations are going unreported. These reductions are driven in part by social isolation from the schoolteachers and support staff with whom students typically interact and who have an obligation to report suspected child maltreatment.”

The harmful effects of preventing children from attending school in person include health issues as well. While some schools and districts have attempted to host food pick up days to compensate for the loss of meals among a large percentage of K-12 students who depend on this service, the increase in food insecurity and overall lack of nutritional food is a severe reality for many families.

Student Lack of Engagement & Extreme Absenteeism

Another reality is K-12 students are simply not showing up to their remote schooling for a host of reasons — lack of internet connectivity, inadequate home learning environment, having to care for siblings, and an overall lack of supervision. Student engagement and motivation have plummeted. This year alone, over three million students have cut ties with school, and the number continues to grow.

Despite a “Strong Start” campaign to parents and students in the fall, less than half of Seattle Public Schools’ students logged into their online sessions during the launch of the 2020 school year. With 100% of the district’s schools staying closed, four months later, the situation remains — students are not logging in to remote school. At their December 5 retreat, the Seattle Public School Board received a staff recommendation for preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade students to return to campus beginning March 1. But with three-quarters of the school year gone by and a full 12-months of suspended in-person instruction, the recommendation that only preschool children and two of the thirteen K-12 grades return to school in a few more months exhibits a disturbing lack of urgency. Their declaration that the “health and wellbeing of our students, staff, and community is our top priority” rings hollow.

And students not engaging with in-person school has ramifications beyond academics. The American Academy of Pediatrics explains student “chronic absenteeism is associated with alcohol and drug use, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, and suicide attempts.” School and district leaders are privy to this knowledge, yet continue to champion the notion schools must remain closed to in-person learning.

Disproportionate Effect for Special Needs, Low-Income, & Minority Students

Similarly, closed schools’ harmful implications for students with special needs are no surprise to these educators; however, little is being done timely to rectify the situation. The President’s Executive Order explains:

Schools provide not only academic supports for students with special needs, but they also provide much-needed in-person therapies and services, including physical and occupational therapies. A recent survey found that 80 percent of children with special needs are not receiving the services and supports to which they are entitled and that approximately 40 percent of children with special needs are receiving no services or supports. Moreover, the survey found that virtual learning may not be fully accessible to these students, as children with special needs are twice as likely to receive little or no remote learning.

Executive Order on Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice

Furthermore, “in low-income zip codes, students’ math progress decreased by nearly 50 percent while school buildings were closed in the spring, and the math progress of students in middle-income zip codes fell by almost a third during the same period.” Additionally, “a recent analysis projected that, if in-person classes do not fully resume until January 2021, Hispanic, Black, and low-income students will lose 9.2, 10.3, and 12.4 months of learning, respectively.” With no slated January 2021 reopening plans, the staggering learning loss will extend beyond these forecasts.

Economic Implications

Aside from the effect on students whose parents do not have the job flexibility to supervise their children and assist with at-home schooling, there are negative financial impacts to the family from schools being closed. With ongoing high unemployment, the current financial loss and hardship will likely extend not only into the short-term future but will cause significant long-term economic implications as well. A recent study found if in-person classes do not fully resume until January 2021, “the average student could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings, or the equivalent of a year of full-time work.” Combine a full year of learning loss with a full year of future earning loss, and the economic future of our children and country is headed in the wrong direction.

The President’s Plan

President Trump’s order seeks to counteract these losses and ensure America’s children are set on a path toward realizing the American Dream:

The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall take steps, consistent with law, to allow funds available through the Community Services Block Grant program to be used by grantees and eligible entities to provide emergency learning scholarships to disadvantaged families for use by any child without access to in-person learning.

These scholarships may be used for:

(i)    tuition and fees for a private or parochial school;

(ii)   homeschool, microschool, or learning-pod costs;

(iii)  special education and related services, including therapies; or

(iv)   tutoring or remedial education.

President Donald J. Trump, Executive Order on Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice

This is no small provision as Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) funds were nearly $1.7 billion during 2020. As K-12 public schools have opted to forego safely reopening to serve their students with in-person learning, utilizing the $13 billion federal support provided, the President has provided an additional funding source to allow students to return to campus classrooms.

Through the emergency CSBG learning scholarships, families who would otherwise not be able to afford it will be able to obtain much needed in-person schooling for their students. Those families who qualify and chose to use the option can realize the benefits school choice provides by selecting the educational opportunity that best fits their needs, regardless of the K-12 public schools’ decision to remain closed.

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