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EDITORIAL: Learning lags despite federal coronavirus funding

Money sent out in haste most often goes to waste. That’s an apt assessment of many government programs, and it certainly applies to funding meant to boost student achievement following the pandemic.

Last month, scholars from Harvard and Stanford released a report on academic recovery from COVID learning loss. They found that between spring 2022 and spring 2023 students regained about a quarter of learning loss in reading and a third of the decline in math.

“Such improvements in grade levels in a single school year mean that students learned 117 percent in math and 108 percent in reading of what they would typically have learned in a pre-pandemic school year,” the researchers found.

That’s the end of the good news. Only Louisiana, Illinois and Mississippi have improved on their pre-pandemic reading scores. Alabama is the only state doing better in math. Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus shutdowns exacerbated the learning gap by income group.

“In most states, achievement gaps between rich and poor districts are even wider now than they were before the pandemic,” the report said.

All of this was predictable years ago. In July 2020, we noted the tragic irony of Clark County School District facilities opening up for lunch, but not learning. There “will be devastating consequences for students who fall further behind academically,” we warned at the time.

In an October 2020 editorial calling for the reopening of the district, we wrote, “Research suggests distance learning is doing substantial academic damage.”

It did. At this point, that damage looks fairly permanent. The federal government sent school districts $190 billion in response to the coronavirus. As of last month, districts had just $51 billion remaining. They must have a plan to distribute the rest of the money by September.

The study authors noted districts were required to spend just 20 percent of those funds on “academic instruction and recovery efforts.” As the Clark County School District’s unproductive “recruiting” trip to Miami suggests, much of that money was wasted. When the government dumps money on a broken system, it’s folly to assume it will be put to its most productive use.

This means that students making up ground academically wasn’t solely the result of new spending. “Other factors, such as supplemental efforts from families and students, are likely to have played a role as well,” the study found.

Little wonder students from wealthier families have bounced back better than their lower-income peers.

This is another reason that Nevada and other states need to embrace school choice. Let poorer families have more of the opportunities that wealthier families already enjoy.

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