State Policy Network
How states can expand education opportunities for families in the wake of uncertain school reopenings

A year of school closures, online learning, and ongoing uncertainty have left parents stressed and anxious about their children’s education and their futures. It’s left students frustrated and behind academically.

These challenges speak to the importance of giving parents more education options for their children. Faced with prolonged school closures and dissatisfaction with their child’s learning environment, many parents have turned to alternative forms of schooling, including private school, charter school, homeschool, and learning pods.

But not all families can afford these alternatives. That’s why states should give parents the resources they need to make the best educational choices for their children—regardless of where they live or how much their income might be.

Americans want all children to have access to a quality education that prepares them for college, a career, and life. Whether its protecting learning pods, advancing Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs), or promoting other innovative education solutions, state think tanks are working to put more power back in the hands of parents so that every student can have they positive future they deserve. As local school districts and policymakers consider how to navigate in-person schooling in the current phase of the pandemic, state think tanks are also offering recommendations to encourage local leaders to strike a better balance between health concerns and the needs of parents and students.


In an op-ed for Must Read Alaska, the Alaska Policy Forum highlighted the damaging psychological and educational impacts of school lockdowns and encouraged Alaska’s school authorities to reopen their doors. APF has also been highlighting Alaska families who are thriving under alternative forms of schooling, including homeschool. And in January 2021, APF released a paper that encouraged Alaska policymakers to fund students instead of institutions.


In the beginning of the pandemic, some school districts opposed having teachers instruct through any format because they feared students wouldn’t be served equally. In the Goldwater Institute’s new legislative guide to recovering from the coronavirus, “Revitalizing America,” the organization recommends that policymakers require school districts and charter schools to continue providing educational services during the closure of physical school campuses if they are to receive state formula funding. Additionally, Goldwater pioneered Arizona’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program in 2011, which gives parents a portion of the funds that would have covered public school costs. Parents may instead use these funds to meet their child’s unique education needs. Goldwater is encouraging policymakers to expand the program this legislative session so even more children can benefit.


This legislative session, California Policy Center is focusing on reopening schools, given the documented pain caused by classroom closures for little-to-no gain in coronavirus safety. Specifically, CPC is encouraging exasperated parents to pursue other educational choices available to them, including charter schools that are more likely to reopen because they generally aren’t beholden to teachers and districts that refuse to return. CPC is making this case through original research showing the outperformance of charter schools, op-eds, and grassroots organizing through the Parent Union project—a group of parents that unite with community members to ensure that all students receive an outstanding public education, regardless of their zip code.


The Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center launched new resources to supplement remote learning or to help students who have fallen behind. These resources included adding hundreds of enrichment activities to to assist parents as they juggle work and their children’s schooling. A new page called Rethinking Education, offered in both English and Spanish, informs parents about learning pods, microschools, and other educational options.


School shutdowns and remote learning have put a renewed emphasis on innovation in education. Suburban families in even the highest-ranking Connecticut school districts are paying more attention to education issues than ever before. Although Connecticut has never instituted any major education choice programs, the Yankee Institute is excited by the renewed opportunity for change and is encouraging policymakers to advance policies that put students and parents first.


The Florida Legislature is considering legislation that would allow parents to use ESAs for private schools and other education costs. The James Madison Institute noted this bill simplifies the current system and gives parents greater flexibility.


The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is working to highlight education innovations and expand existing options for Georgia families to include learning pods and Education Savings Accounts.


In June 2020, Idaho Freedom Foundation reviewed the conditions for reopening public schools and reminded parents that returning to government-run public schools is not their only option. In August 2020, the Foundation noted the evidence speaks loudly to reopening Idaho’s schools. And in October, the Foundation highlighted how some teachers unions in the state were stopping schools from reopening. The Foundation argued students who want in-person instruction should be able to use their education tax dollars to attend the many private, charter, and alternative learning schools that are open in Idaho.


The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), known as “the most militant teachers union in the country,” was the leading voice in opposition to schools reopening for nearly a year. The union threatened to go on strike if the district demanded a return to in-person instruction. However, as the Illinois Policy Institute and Liberty Justice Institute pointed out, there was a major flaw with the union’s plan: A strike would violate both the current collective bargaining agreement with Chicago Public Schools and Illinois law. Thanks in part to a comprehensive campaign from Liberty Justice Center, students in Chicago Public Schools finally returned to the classroom in March 2021.


TEF Iowa is working on school choice reform that strengthens open enrollment and creates an Education Savings Account (ESA) program. The Iowa Legislature is taking note: In March 2021, lawmakers introduced a bill that would create an ESA program.


The Kansas Legislature is considering legislation that creates Education Savings Accounts for students who are financially or academically determined to be at-risk by school districts. The Kansas Policy Institute noted this will create an incentive for districts to at least get students to grade level.


With all the confusion surrounding reopening and Kentucky’s schools, the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions has been promoting Kentucky’s long-running, fully online program from the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning, or BAVEL. Bluegrass noted the program has been around since 2004, and it offers an alternative to distance learning programs created on relatively short notice by teachers who don’t have much experience with successful distance learning.


As a result of school shutdowns, some parents started using “pod”-style learning. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is continuing to further policy recommendations that help parents and students access educational options that work best for them, including learning pods.


Throughout the pandemic, the Center of the American Experiment has been making the case for schools to reopen. American Experiment highlighted the learning loss that comes with prolonged closures and explainer how unions and politics may be driving school closures. American Experiment also encouraged Minnesota policymakers to focus on student-centered solutions, such as emergency Education Savings Accounts, that don’t force parents to continue paying for closed schools.


With schools closed and many parents looking for alternative education options, Empower Mississippi launched the Mississippi School Finder in June 2020. The tool gives users a complete picture of public, private, and alternative education options available in their communities.


The Show-Me Institute’s biggest priority for the 2021 legislative session is making a variety of high-quality education options available to Missouri families. The experience of schooling in 2020 laid bare for many families just how inadequate the traditional public schooling model is for many. The confusing patchwork of in-person schooling, remote schooling, and often pricey private supplemental options was a nightmare for many families to navigate. Many traditional public schools didn’t, or simply couldn’t, provide what the families in their districts needed. The Show-Me Institute noted parents should be able to use public funds to enroll their children in a charter school, a private school, a microschool, or a virtual school. They should also be able to access public funds to get the tutoring or educational therapies their children need. The organization’s efforts are paying off—Missouri lawmakers are currently considering a tax credit scholarship program for families in the state.

New Hampshire

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy is making a big push this year to explain the benefits of Education Savings Accounts, and the New Hampshire Legislature is listening. State lawmakers are considering legislation that creates Education Freedom Accounts (EFA) in the Granite State. The EFA program would allow any New Hampshire resident eligible to attend a public school in grades K-12 to use his or her per-pupil state education grant to pay for a variety of educational services chosen from a state-approved list. In March 2021, Josiah Bartlettreleased a report that shows these Education Freedom Accounts will save taxpayer money and improve student outcomes.

North Carolina

Reopening North Carolina’s schools has been a priority of the John Locke Foundation. It has been a long uphill battle, further frustrated by the reluctance of the North Carolina Governor to acknowledge the data that indicates it is considerably safe to do. In March 2021, the Foundation released a Civitas Flash Poll highlighting the unpopularity of the North Carolina Governor’s veto of in-person learning choice for families. The findings indicate that well over a majority (59 percent) of likely voters across the state supported Senate Bill 37, allowing schools to reopen. Thankfully, on March 10, 2021, the governor and Republican lawmakers reached an agreement on reopening public schools for in-person instruction. The North Carolina Legislature is also considering two bills that would expand parental choice in the Tar Heel State.


In August 2020, the Cascade Policy Institute pointed out Oregon guidelines for the 2020 fall semester have been remarkably inconsistent, causing confusion and mayhem for faculty, parents, and students. In November, Cascade questioned why—on the same day—the state announced a record breaking number of COVID-19 cases and rolled out relaxed safety standards for reopening Oregon elementary schools. Throughout the pandemic, Cascade has been encouraging legislators to give families control over a portion of the state’s per-pupil education funding to spend on tuition and other education resources.


In the Washington Examiner, the Commonwealth Foundation pointed out that, although Pennsylvania teachers’ union leaders have been pressuring government officials to keep schools closed during the pandemic, they’re running into opposition from a growing coalition of parents. In March 2021, Commonwealth released a new analysis of Pennsylvania school district finances that finds the vast majority of districts are likely fiscally healthy coming out of 2020. Commonwealth discussed this report on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle and considered if Pennsylvania public schools are profiting off the coronavirus pandemic—while many are keeping their doors closed to students.

West Virginia

As the debate about how to safely and sensibly reopen schools rages on, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy is working to ensure that every family in every community is empowered with the resources they need to educate their children. Cardinal’s multi-year efforts to bring parental choice to the Mountain State paid off in March 2021, when West Virginia passed the most expansive and inclusive school choice program in the nation.

Categories: Policy Solutions
Policy Issues: K-12 Education
Organization: State Policy Network