Earlier this year, Governor DeWinethat all public schools create and publish plans to address student learning loss caused by the pandemic. A quick look at the reveals a wide variety of intervention efforts. Ohio’s two largest districts— and —have taken a similar approach. Both plan to offer summer school to all students on a much broader scale than in years past, and their programming will offer academic and enrichment activities.
Summer school is a wise choice for obvious reasons. The easiest way to make up for lost time is to reclaim time that isn’t typically dedicated to school—weeknights, weekends, and breaks like summer. Weaving enrichment activities into summer school is also smart, because it’s the nonacademic offerings—the “fun” stuff—that will get kids excited about enrolling in and consistently attending school during the summer. Officials in the Cleveland Municipal School District even said as much when.
But enrichment opportunities aren’t just “fun” stuff. Many of the lessons kids learn in classrooms can be reinforced on athletic fields, in studios, and on the stage.shows that field trips help students improve critical thinking and increase factual knowledge. And enrichment activities offer an ideal opportunity to focus on social-emotional learning, which is not only beneficial for students’ mental health but can also impact academic performance.
Now more than ever, enrichment should be a priority. Covid lockdowns that kept us all in our homes for months revealed just how vital these activities are to development. Yet for millions of children, the sudden dearth of opportunities brought about by the pandemic wasn’t much different from their normal circumstances. America might be called the land of opportunity, but—which means students from low-income families lose out.
The best way to eliminate this opportunity gap is to address it head on. One way is by providing schools and other after-school and youth service providers with funds to conduct programs and expand access to free opportunities. Another way is to get dollars directly into parents’ hands and allow them to tailor enrichment activities to their child’s needs and interests.
The latter approach is exactly what the Ohio Senate did in its, which created the Afterschool Child Enrichment (ACE) educational savings account. This program would provide families whose income is at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line with $500 that can be used to pay for a variety of enrichment activities for children between the ages of six and eighteen. Families are prohibited from using the funds to purchase electronic devices, but they can spend them on any of the following approved activities:
- Before or after-school educational programs
- Day camps, including camps for academics, music, and arts
- Tuition for learning extension centers
- Tuition for learning pods
- The purchase of curriculum and material for homeschool families
- Educational, learning, or study skills services
- Field trips to historical landmarks, museums, science centers, and theaters
- Language classes
- Instrument lessons
In order to administer the program, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) would be required to contract with a vendor, with preference given to one that can provide customer-service contact information and a free smart phone application through which parents can apply for the funds. The vendor would also be responsible for monitoring accounts, recovering money that was spent in unauthorized ways, and providing ODE with a comprehensive list of purchases that were made via ACE accounts.
It’s worth noting that eligibility is relatively broad. Families must meet the income requirement, but ACE accounts can be opened for any student who attends a public or nonpublic school, as well as for those who are homeschooled. The downside to such extensive availability, however, is that demand could rapidly outpace supply. The bill uses federal coronavirus school relief appropriations to fund the program, and although it allocates $50 million for FY 2022 and $75 million for FY 2023, that’s not enough to cover all eligible students. Because ACE accounts will be established on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s possible that interested families could miss out if they don’t apply soon enough.
The program has also been limited to two school years. That makes sense, because it’s more or less a pilot program and because federal relief dollars have an expiration date. But the deadline does raise questions about what happens after 2023. Opportunity gaps preexist the pandemic, and two years of enrichment savings accounts is unlikely to eliminate it. When federal relief dollars run out, there will still be families who need financial assistance to access the same enrichment opportunities that are readily available to their more affluent peers. If this innovative program proves successful, Ohio legislators should consider finding ways to continue funding it beyond 2023.
All things considered, though, the Senate deserves plenty of praise for tackling the opportunity gap. Conference committee debates over the budget are looming, and it’s impossible to predict whether the Senate’s ACE accounts will become a reality. But given the need that enrichment savings accounts address—and the potential positive outcomes—here’s hoping this program not only makes into the enacted budget but becomes a permanent part of Ohio’s education landscape, as well.