‘Getting and spending’ wastes parent, student power

In Baltimore, local media are reporting that a student with a 0.13 GPA ranked in the top half of his class. After finishing four years of high school, district officials shocked this student (who is not named, though his mother, Tiffany France, is quoted in the story) and his family when they sent him back to ninth grade, saying he lacked enough credits to graduate.

Questions abound: Why was the student moved to the next grade from one year to the next? Why were the parents not informed earlier?

And perhaps most importantly, why was he not the only one? This student had 58 classmates with GPAs at this dismal level. In a sad indictment of a school where “no one…told France her son was failing and not going to class,” France said her son “feels like a failure.”

Examples such as these are only useful if they represent the whole, and sadly, this case may not be extreme. The Nation’s Report Card showed historic declines in September when results found that 9-year-old scores had fallen drastically in math and reading.

In Illinois, data from 2019—before the pandemic—finds that the percentage of third graders reading at grade level in some districts is in the single digits. Statewide, barely one-third of these young children can read. Scores are likely worse today.

It is remarkable that we even have data from some places. New York City school officials delayed release of the test scores and only recently provided school-level data. California school leaders are refusing to release student test score results on time. Parents will not know how their children are doing until an “undetermined date later this year,” according to EdSource.

The poet William Wordsworth said, “The world is too much with us”—the world’s problems, that is—and in the process of “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” For assigned school systems like Baltimore’s, the world’s problems appear to be too much for the system.

Some still appear to be interested in “getting and spending,” though, at the expense of education’s power to give students hope for the future.

A recent study estimates that schools would need $700 billion in additional money to help students get back to where they were before COVID-19. Education Week says the researchers “don’t imagine their study will lead to Congress suddenly deciding to increase school aid,” a prescient observation.

In fact, as the outlet reports, schools have two more years to spend the $200 billion that federal taxpayers sent to schools during the pandemic to prevent these problems, and as of March, Dan Lips of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity reports that some $154 billion was still unspent.

If more money did not prevent the problem and has not been spent to slow the disastrous results, how can anyone make the case that money is the answer?

Perhaps this is why the recent education news from Arizona and West Virginia is so significant. In Arizona, an education special-interest group devoted to “getting and spending” for public schools failed to gather enough signatures to challenge the new law that allows every child to apply for an education savings account (ESA). In West Virginia, the state Supreme Court of Appeals’ upheld an account option now available to nearly every child in the state.

Some state officials are in a rush to catch up. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee posted on Twitter last week about the number of applicants to his state’s education savings accounts and said he’s “just getting started.” Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott made his intentions clear for the 2023 session earlier this year.

In states such as Missouri and Kentucky, lawmakers have approved ESAs, though the options are not yet available to families—which means that if policymakers successfully launch the accounts, the best is yet to come.

Washington Post columnist George Will says Wordsworth’s poem means that “what we more urgently need, always, is attention paid to the ideas that have consequences,” not the world’s problems that sometimes look like too much to solve.

State leaders who are paying attention today will see the declines in student achievement and ignore the vast sums that are not coming. But they will have a vision for calling on parents’ and students’ untapped powers.

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BY Jonathan Butcher

Jonathan Butcher is senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy's Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.