In Governor Kelly’s state of the state speech last Tuesday, she spent relatively little time on education. However, she did state that “our kids are feeling the lingering effects of the pandemic,” referring to what is known as learning loss from the effects of mandated school closings and the failure of remote learning. Within that context, she touted the bi-partisan agreement to use $50 million of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding for learning recovery grants for students who need “that extra help” in addressing “the learning gap created by the pandemic.”
These grants will be in the amount of $1,000 given directly to low-income students/families for educational related expenses such as materials, online courses, technology, tutoring, daycare and therapy. Families will apply online and the money will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. The $50 million will provide funding for 50,000 of the approximately 179,000 low-income students across the state.
The concept of giving taxpayer money directly to families for educational services is not unique. Eight states have established similar programs with their own state funds. Collectively, these are known as ESAs – educational savings/spending accounts – and they provide money directly to families to spend the money as they best see fit. The exact rules, amounts, and eligible families vary from state to state, but the concept is the same: give families educational choices by giving them money directly.
Although the Kansas grant program is relatively small, it provides an opportunity for some families to get at least a taste of educational choice. It’s unfortunate that it took a health-related crisis and federal funding to help address a learning crisis. The learning crisis in Kansas public schools, both in terms of overall achievement and income-based learning gaps far preceded Covid-19. Governor Kelly’s comment that there is a “learning gap created by the pandemic” could just as easily been the “learning gap created by low performing schools.” The non-Covid created learning crisis is far more severe than that created by the pandemic. Long after the virus is gone, systemic-based low achievement and learning gaps will continue unchecked unless the system is changed.
Why not continue expanding choice funding once these federal dollars have dried up? The state gets approximately $100 million each year in Title I federal funding that is supposed to increase achievement of low-income students. The state allocates over $400,000,000 annually in state funds for at-risk funding that is supposed to be specifically targeted toward improving the education outcomes of low-income students. If anything, Covid only exacerbated existing gaps. Given the dismal performance of schools across the state in utilizing these funds – one in which overall achievement remains unacceptably low and income-based learning gaps remain unacceptably high – it’s high time that money went directly to families to decide how it is spent.
My hope is that the demand for these thousand dollar grants far exceeds the money supply. Perhaps that will provide an impetus for the state to give serious consideration to making this “mini-ESA” program permanent.