More than 120,000 American schools have closed since March, a change affecting more than 55 million students. As we approach August, an intense debate about reopening schools has been brewing. One side argues that schools should reopen so that families can return to work and children can receive the education taxpayers have paid for. The other side says that schools cannot reopen safely without $116 billion more in federal funding, on top of the $13 billion already allocated to states to reopen schools.
This debate wouldn’t be so contentious if we funded students instead of school systems. The funding could follow children to wherever their families feel they would receive an effective education, be it a district-run school, a charter school, a private school, or a home setting. In that situation, if an individual school decided not to reopen—or if it reopened unsafely or inadequately—families could take their children’s education dollars elsewhere.
That is how food stamp funding currently works. If a neighborhood grocery store refuses to reopen, it may be inconvenient, but families wouldn’t be devastated; they could take their money elsewhere. Imagine if you were forced to pay your neighborhood Walmart the same amount of money each week regardless of whether they provided your family with any groceries. The store would have little incentive to reopen in an effective or timely manner.
It sounds absurd. But you have essentially just imagined today’s compulsory K–12 school system.
And it’s even worse than that. Even if the institution were required to provide goods and services through online or other platforms, it would still have weak incentives to get things right, because families would still be powerless.