Pandemic learning loss shows need for school choice | Opinion

January 29, 2021 6:00 am

The author argues that closed schools and substandard distance learning prove the need for school choice. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images.

The COVID pandemic has made the need for school choice more evident than ever. For tens of thousands of Minnesota public school children — especially in the metro — distance learning is their only option. Kindergartners learning to read, students with disabilities, a high schooler struggling through algebra — there is no other option. 

My son, who can’t do distance learning because of an intellectual disability, went seven months without any schooling at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s three summers. 

Even before the pandemic, schools were failing Black children like my son: 66% of white students in Minnesota were proficient in reading. For Black students it was 34%. In math the gap was even larger – 64% of white students were proficient compared with 26% of Black students. 

The pandemic has probably only exacerbated the achievement gap. Most kids are negatively impacted by distance learning, but Black kids are likely affected the most

These kids were already behind and will fall even further behind if they are not returned to in-person school, or given options that provide them with real choices, including private schools, private educators, micro-schools and homeschool co-ops.

I know many kids are struggling with distance learning, but I speak of people of color in particular because they are ironically being used as the justification for not returning all children to school. I’ve heard voices advocating for keeping public schools closed during the pandemic to protect Black children from COVID-19. But what about the risk — graver for Black children than white — of falling further behind in school, which will doom them to a life of poverty? The achievement gap ultimately turns into an income gap. 

Most kids do not learn as well through a screen. Many students are suffering from isolation and inactivity. I personally know of children who have been suicidal since the pandemic.  

Now, don’t get me wrong: Teachers in all settings do amazing, life-changing work, and I know they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances. And I believe that many teachers would like to return to in-person teaching, where they can do their best work. 

Until then, we cannot sit by idly as our children suffer from isolation and substandard education through distance learning. 

During this crisis, school choice is especially vital for people who are low income and stuck in schools that are failing them. 

And, yet, opponents of school choice claim they champion the rights of the poor, marginalized and people of color. They proclaim they care about equity and the achievement gap. But if they truly cared, why wouldn’t they support giving choices to parents whose children are stuck in bad schools, or no school at all. 

As a Black mom, who once was a Black child of a drug addict, I saw education as the only way out. Education is the great equalizer. Which is why I am so sick of the failing education establishment talking about “equity.” If they really want equity, they would provide a quality education or allow all students a real ability to go elsewhere when their school is failing them. There will never be equity if a child can’t read or write. 

And until public schools start performing better, parents should be able to choose a school that serves their child best. This will push all schools to improve, knowing that students have a real option to make another choice. 

Research shows when parents actively choose schools for their children, students are more likely to succeed in school. We can’t wait one more minute. This legislative session, let’s commit to ensuring more families can access schools of their choice in 2021 and beyond.

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Kofi Montzka
Kofi Montzka

Kofi Montzka is an attorney and mother of three school-aged children, one who attends a traditional public school and two who attend public charter schools.