Nichols: How COVID-19 Screwed a Nation and Fueled a School Choice Revolution

by | Jan 19, 2024 | Opinion

The COVID pandemic has induced a systemic reckoning the likes of which our education system has never seen. A monumental new nationwide poll has laid bare a seismic shift—an overwhelming majority of parents now stand behind key pillars of the school choice movement, from education savings accounts to tax credit scholarships to, crucially, releasing students from restrictive zoning laws dictating school access.

Among black and lower-income families, support tops a staggering 70-80%. These demographics have the most to gain from school choice, so their full-throated endorsement signals this debate has reached an inflection point after years simmering below the mainstream radar.

When schools rapidly transitioned to remote learning in early 2020 due to COVID lockdowns, parents were afforded front row seats into their children’s academic lives, often for the first time. For many families, what they saw gave them great unease about the status quo – curriculums that seemed inadequate or superficial, teaching methods that struggled to engage through a screen, and achievement gaps laid bare between students from different backgrounds and learning styles.

Pre-pandemic, most parents implicitly trusted the system and those running it to deliver their kids a quality education, even if they weren’t deeply familiar with the inner workings. COVID permanently eroded this baseline confidence in the system for millions of families. By exposing pervasive deficiencies and areas for massive improvement, remote learning prompted a wholesale crisis of confidence and forced many to consider alternatives.

I think of my friend Kayla, who had always casually bought into the common assumption that school choice schemes undermine public schools by diverting funds and students. But after seeing how the pandemic response exposed public education’s systemic inadequacies for her kids future, she now admits these policy proposals deserve real consideration on the merits.

This pandemic-driven change of heart is far from an outlier in America today. Between 63-67% of Americans now support key expansions of school choice opportunities. And strikingly, they increasingly believe that rather than threaten public schools, injecting options and competition could have a net positive effect of improving the landscape for all families.

Matt Frendewey is the Director of State Projects for the Yes Every Kid initiative. I recently spoke with him on my podcast, where he chalks the findings of this blockbuster poll up to a “monumental perceptual shift” years in the making, that COVID accelerated to warp speed by necessity. In his view, the tired, regimented, industrial-style Prussian education model dictating public schooling today was never designed around nurturing students as individuals. It took the harsh spotlight of schools closing and learning going virtual to make long-obvious deficiencies impossible for parents to ignore any longer.

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Frendewey believes policy is already reacting to this cultural realignment and will continue bending to parent-driven demand. Just in the past two years since the pandemic’s onset, nearly 20 states have passed either new or expanded school choice laws. But much work remains, especially in reliably red states like Kansas, Tennessee, and Texas where school choice garners high support in polling but lacks strong political muscle or funding to penetrate legislative skepticism. Opposition increasingly seems to stand on little more than outdated ideology rather than data or public opinion.

In our interview, Frendewey raised the provocative point that rather than mere public school reform, America could be on the cusp of entering an age of unprecedented educational freedom and flexibility for every family. Current choice vehicles like education savings accounts (ESAs) are only the tip of the spear – soon, most parents may have almost total personalization and customization at their fingertips if momentum continues.

Meanwhile, eliminating restrictive zip code and zoning policies that arbitrarily restrict which public school a student can attend based solely on place of residence would also be a game-changer for access and opportunity. Why should a child’s academic future be determined by their address in a system funded by all taxpayers?

If more states say yes to passage of innovative, student-first choice policies, Frendewey envisions an explosion of options and entrepreneurial new models as energized parents and educators regain autonomy. He highlighted teachers increasingly defecting from public schools in frustration to launch their own microschools and learning pods instead, fueling grassroots-style customization. The potential for continued innovation is boundless if legislators can keep pace with swelling public demand.

While a federal School Choice Amendment may still feel like a politically ambitious pipe dream for now, immense state-level action is not just plausible but well underway. However, it will require parents, education leaders, innovators, and impassioned advocates to keep ringing the alarm until the uneven status quo catches up to public opinion. Because, like Pandora’s box, the pandemic opened parents’ eyes wide to flaws, inadequacies, and mediocrity that can’t simply be ignored anymore.

With support for school choice already securing a strong majority among various cross-sections of America, the time for incrementalism has passed. The public wants options, customization, and a system oriented around students—it’s time to unleash transformative policies to match this momentum and make it happen.

Brian Nichols is host of the Brian Nichols Show – powered by Amp America. You can follow Brian on X at @bnicholsliberty.

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