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Opinion: COVID-19 lessons: Outbreak highlights need for education reform in Missouri

  

As a retired high school chemistry teacher and coach with more than three decades in the classroom in Sweet Springs, Vandalia, and Moberly public schools, I have seen the status quo at work and been part of the educational monopoly. 

But for all of that experience, the disruptions of 2020 have exposed issues in public education that I didn’t know existed — and that have turned this one-time skeptic of school choice into a staunch advocate of more options for Missouri families.

Rep. Ed Lewis

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students have been “educated” in ways almost unheard of in my tenure, with Zoom meetings, synchronous and asynchronous classrooms, teaching pods, hybrid learning, and flexible scheduling. The past 10 months have seen disruption to the educational status quo like no other.

When schools across the state shut down in mid-March, teachers were forced to embrace different ways of teaching online and communicating with their students. But when students were told that they would be “held harmless” for their online work, participation plummeted.

 The school year ended, and summer began. Parents hoped for a return to normal in the fall after a terrible experience in the spring. While some schools reopened, many didn’t, with wide variations based on the decisions of local school boards and superintendents.

By necessity, the available learning options expanded. And while these new educational opportunities worked for some, they have failed many.

For families both in our state and across the country, COVID-19 has shown that a one-size-fits-all approach to what’s best for our kids doesn’t work. 

Parents and students need choices.

On Wednesday, when I was sworn in as the new representative for HD 6, I was encouraged to hear new House Speaker Rob Vescovo outline his support for school choice during his introductory remarks on the first day of the 101st session of the Missouri General Assembly.

The new Speaker powerfully shared his own firsthand experience as a struggling student and high-school dropout who would later earn a G.E.D., graduate from Southeast Missouri State University, and build a successful business.

“I look at the one-size-fits-all approach our system too often takes, and I believe it failed me just as it fails countless other students each year,” the Speaker said. “We must be innovative as we look for ways to give young people the tools they need to succeed. And that means improving our system of education so that it can help the kids who do not learn in conventional ways.”

As we move forward this session, I urge my colleagues to embrace the Speaker’s call for educational innovation, including high-quality options such as education savings accounts or charter school expansion beyond St. Louis and Kansas City that will provide every child in our state with more educational choice, regardless of zip code. 

Now more than ever, the prolonged pandemic has further exposed the limitations of our bloated education bureaucracy. Education savings accounts, open enrollment, or tuition-free public charter schools may offer children choice in locations where quality educational opportunities don’t currently exist. They provide students the time and personal attention to truly learn, with more flexibility and innovation than their counterparts. 

Nationwide, 77 percent of families with children in public schools support putting the needs of students first through school choice. That’s a 10 percent jump from an April 2020 survey — before the pandemic worsened. Notably, that support crosses party lines as well as across age, race, and ethnicity.

As I spoke to voters on the campaign trail in the summer and fall and continue to hear from both my own constituents and Missourians far and wide, I have become convinced that we must chart a new course that puts the needs of students first and gives every child in our state an equal shot at success.

Our public education resources don’t belong to the bureaucracy or to one particular kind of school. They belong to our children. So while we look ahead to better times in 2021, and as public-school systems throughout the state prepare to adopt the lessons of pandemic learning to the future, the opportunity to immeasurably better our children’s futures is simply too powerful to pass up. 

As terrible as this pandemic has been, it may very well shake up the status quo and provide better choices for education in our students’ futures.