While many taxpayers and businesses are suffering — and failing — under the lash of the COVID-19 closures, school districts are seeing significant cost-savings, and one education expert says parents deserve a refund.

In Kansas, schools were shut down in March on Governor Kelly’s order, and while some are providing remote instruction, many more are not. Some — like Wichita — are only providing a few hours a week.

Lindsey M. Burke, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education

A column by Dr. Lindsey Burke, Education Policy Director at the Heritage Foundation, cites evidence showing Wichita schools are only providing about one hour of content per week to students in grades K-5, and about three hours per week for students in middle school.

“So this is something that we’re seeing across the country that different school districts — and it varies widely — but quite a few school districts are providing content that parents can come and pick up,” Burke said in a phone interview on May 28. “But the content they’re providing … really is providing a limited amount of instructional material.”

The problem, Burke argues, is that children are not getting the education their parents paid for, while the shuttered schools are saving money on transportation, extracurricular activities, and probably paying greatly reduced utility bills, among other substantial savings.

Last year, the Wichita school district spent $12,225 per student on operating costs, and they budgeted to spend $13,738 this year.  Operating costs exclude spending on capital and debt payments.

The bottom line? With schools shut down for about two months, they are not spending all the money they received from taxpayers.

“This is not Kansas-specific, this is something we’re seeing across the board,” Burke said. “Parents are taxpayers, parents are paying for public schools across the money.”

Burke said, schools have various funding mechanisms, from bond issues to property and sales taxes and state taxes that are used to pay for teachers, buildings, and administrators — but currently parents aren’t getting value-for-money.

“Parents and taxpayers are currently paying for public schools that their kids cannot physically enter right now,” she said.

Her solution? 

In her column, Burke said taxpayers should get a refund.

“Where this has happened in higher education, college students have instigated class-action lawsuits, demanding partial refunds since they cannot access their campuses,” Burke wrote. “They argue they are receiving less of the educational experience their colleges promised to deliver when they paid tuition upfront.”

Burke argues a prorated refund, put into an education savings account would be a far better use of the funds than what districts sitting mostly idle would put them to.

“Families should immediately be provided with a refund — a prorated portion of the money that would have been spent by the state in which they reside and by their local school district from the beginning of March through the end of the school year,” she wrote. “Those dollars should be placed in a restricted-use education savings account that parents could use to pay for virtual tutors, online learning, textbooks, curriculums, diagnostic tests, and other products and services, in order to maintain education continuity for their children during this crisis.”

In the interview, Burke also noted that the shutdown is a chance for parents to find out just what their kids have — or have not — been learning in public school.

“The opportunity the parents are presented with now is that, you know, they’re home with their kids and they’re able to really do a deep dive into the content that the kids are learning in their district schools,” she said. And taking the opportunity to assess those curricular materials that the public schools are using, and really start to understand whether you know — a civics curriculum or math curriculum, whatever it might be in their public school — what their children are learning day-to-day.”

In the column, Burke also points out that funding is institutionally-centered — on districts — rather than on the children.

“… education funding should always be student-centered and portable, rather than institutional,” Burke wrote. “In order to weather this storm (and the next), public education dollars should fund the student, and be used in whatever learning environment or school is the best fit for them.”

James Franko, president of Kansas Policy institute, which owns the Sentinel, says funding students instead of institutions is a social justice issue.

“The COVID pandemic has thrown ‘normal’ life into a new light. How schools and families are educating kids is no different. We can learn a lot from this situation about how kids learn, how technology can be leveraged to educate kids, and, yes, how much money is being spent on K-12 schools. The idea of money following a child to their education of choice is a social justice issue that cannot be ignored. Amidst the real tragedy of COVID, if school closures get us closer to realizing the dream of kids picking their educational path then so be it.”

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