Funding Education Opportunity: Unconventional education partnerships, states’ school choice legislation, and more
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Funding Education Opportunity Newsletter

Funding Education Opportunity: Unconventional education partnerships, states’ school choice legislation, and more

Plus: Oklahoma establishes country's first religious charter school, applications for Iowa's universal ESAs exceed projections, and more.

School districts need to get creative in combating the learning loss students experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek estimated that due to learning loss, “Students on average face 2 to 9 percent lower lifetime income depending on the state in which they attended school.” 

In response to the pandemic, school districts received the largest influx of federal K-12 education dollars in history–nearly $200 billion, with little federal oversight. With the federal money flowing freely, school districts spent on facility upgrades, teacher bonuses, backfilling budgets, and even repaving parking lots. Yet, many districts struggled to implement programs to stop learning loss. 

According to a Dec. 2022 National Institute for Education Sciences (NIES) survey of school staff, just 37% of school districts provided high-dosage tutoring—defined as one-on-one or small group tutoring and considered the most effective form of tutoring— and even fewer students took advantage of it. NIES reported that only 10% of public school students used high-dosage tutoring. For instance, in the School District of Philadelphia, less than one percent of students took advantage of the district’s free tutoring services. “District officials aren’t sure why its tutoring program, which is free for the district’s K-12 students, isn’t reaching more of them,” Chalkbeat reported.

Overcoming these barriers is challenging, but some school districts are reaching students by partnering with other community institutions. For example, during the pandemic, a small, rural Illinois school district, Monmouth-Roseville, partnered with a local church, using “COVID relief funds to facilitate a[n in-person] tutoring program,” The74 reported.  Since then, Monmouth-Roseville used about half its COVID relief funds to implement various tutoring programs during and after school hours, partnering with the local college and community center to get students back on track. 

Monmouth-Roseville’s efforts are now paying dividends. Despite 96% of students in the district being from low-income families and 20% being English language learners, The74 found: “Monmouth-Roseville students receiving tutoring outpaced their peers’ growth in literacy and math in 2022, according to standardized tests. And low-income students in the district made faster progress than comparable students statewide.” The school district paid recent high school graduates from the church to tutor students, which helped students and parents overcome language barriers.

In North Carolina, some school districts and schools have similarly partnered with churches in rural areas to improve student literacy during the summer. Since 2012, North Carolina teachers have run reading camps at churches, where volunteers and pastors provide students with meals. Harvard literacy researcher Helen Chen noted that church communities can sometimes overcome barriers that school districts cannot, and research is being done to see how to scale the efforts.

These examples highlight a few examples of how thinking outside the traditional schoolyard can assist educators in reaching students effectively. School districts across the country should examine partnering with non-school institutions and every other option available that may help students recover from pandemic-induced learning loss.

From the states

School choice policies will benefit more families in the new school year.

In Nebraska, public school advocates want to put the state’s new school choice law on the 2024 ballot. To do so, they need to collect 90,000 signatures in the next 90 days. In May, state policymakers signed the Opportunity Scholarship program into law, which provides tax-credit scholarships to private school students.

The New Hampshire State Senate passed an expansion of the state’s Education Freedom Account (EFA) program. Families with incomes at or below 350 percent of the federal poverty level will now be eligible for EFAs valued at about $5,000. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is expected to sign the proposal into law.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed an expansion of the Alabama Accountability Act into law. This tax-credit scholarship lets students assigned to a public school ranked as “D” or “F” enroll in a private or public school outside their residentially assigned area. The law also expands eligibility so that students with a household income (family of four) of up to $75,000 and those with disabilities have more options.

In Wisconsin, the legislature passed a proposal that increased the state’s K-12 funding by $1 billion. This proposal includes additional funding for the state’s voucher program. Voucher recipients in kindergarten through 8th grade would receive an additional $1,000 annually, and recipients in high school would receive an extra $3,000 annually if the law is passed. Gov. Evers is expected to sign the bill this week.

What to watch

The Arkansas Supreme Court removed the pause on the LEARNS Act. A lower state court had temporarily paused the school choice law’s implementation after a lawsuit claimed the Arkansas state legislature failed to follow proper voting procedures when the bill was passed. The state Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that “because the appellees failed to meet their burden of proving irreparable harm, the circuit court abused its discretion in granting the motion.” As a result, the LEARNS Act is effective immediately.

Oklahoma established the country’s first religious charter school. Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic School’s application in a split vote. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Ryan Walters expressed support for the Catholic charter school. “Because charter schools are public schools funded by taxpayers, the decision to fund a religiously affiliated charter school is already coming under legal scrutiny,” the National Catholic Register reported.  

West Virginia approved more than 5,000 Hope Scholarship education savings accounts, approving more than 80% of applicants. Each student’s ESA is valued at $4,888. 

Applications for Iowa’s universal education savings accounts exceed projections. When policymakers signed Iowa’s ESA program into law last year, a state analysis estimated that 14,068 students would enroll. However, the state education agency has already received 17,520 applications with time remaining before the June 30 application deadline. Each approved ESA recipient receives a $7,600 scholarship in state funds.

Florida’s third-largest county expects a major uptick in ESA recipients. Officials in Palm Beach County announced they expect the number of education savings account recipients to double this coming school year. Last year, a total of 8,032 students in Palm Beach County received scholarships valued at $8,000 each. However, Palm Beach County officials anticipate scholarship recipients will increase to 16,398 students by the next fiscal year, as income caps are removed.

Yet again, a family is suing Maine’s tuition assistance program for religious discrimination. Shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Carson v Makin, policymakers revised Maine’s law to exclude any school that discriminates against other religions. This means that if a participating school provides a religious service, such as mass, it must also accommodate any other religious service. The suit argues that this policy intentionally discriminates against private schools with a faith-based mission.

Recommended reading 

What I Learned Running for School Board
Robert Pondiscio in Education Next

“But at the very least, a simple legislative fix also seems in order: move school board and budget votes off-campus. This would level the playing field by making school-district employees travel to cast their ballots, just like everyone else. It would also dull the impact of school district’s de facto get-out-the-friendly-vote efforts.”

Schools Pay More, While Teachers Get Less
Chad Aldeman at Bellwether

“In fact, states have been cutting benefits for workers even as they face rising costs, thanks to negligence in how they fund their teacher pension plans. States collectively now face more than $800 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. These pension debt costs are crowding out other potential investments in education.”

Bright Horizons for School Choice
Frederick M. Hess at Law and Liberty

“It’s a lot easier to tolerate heterodoxy when educational choice is racking up one unprecedented triumph after another. Those gains also make this a crucial time for no-nonsense reflection. After all, the stakes have been raised. Success will be more visible and failure will be more devastating.”