School Choice

Biden Blames Math, Reading Losses on the Pandemic—When He Should Blame COVID-19 Restrictions

Virtual learning was a policy choice, and the politicians who supported it are responsible.


On Wednesday, President Biden blamed kids' reading and math losses on the COVID-19 pandemic, and called on school districts to spend American Rescue Plan funds on tutoring programs.

"Due to the pandemic, kids are behind in math and reading," tweeted Biden. "We know how to help bridge this gap. I'm calling on schools to use American Rescue Plan funds to expand tutoring, summer learning, and after school programs and to provide 250,000 more tutors and mentors for our kids."

If by "the pandemic," Biden was referring to the disease itself, his comment is misleading. The overwhelming majority of otherwise healthy kids who caught COVID-19 got sick—they didn't get worse at math. The reason that many young people are currently lagging in reading and math is because they languished in a virtual learning environment for months. Working families struggled to make sure their kids logged on to their laptops and kept up with their assignments. Students from challenging backgrounds couldn't engage with the material through a computer screen; others were so depressed from no longer seeing their friends or participating in extracurricular activities that they tuned out of the academic part of school entirely.

When they did get back into the classroom, masks—which can inhibit clear communication—made learning more difficult for some kids, particularly those who have learning disabilities. And some districts kept forcibly masking students, even without much scientific evidence to back up the assertion that cloth masks were tamping down the spread of COVID-19 in schools. In New York City, children under the age of 5 were forced to wear masks in school until June 13. They've been unmasked for less than a month.

Throughout the pandemic, no one languished under more onerous restrictions than children. Even though it was well-established early on that COVID-19 largely spared most healthy young people, state and local governments—at the behest of federal health officials—forced schools to close. In many parts of the country, class instruction was virtual for an entire year. Policy choices created the circumstances that caused kids' reading and math attainment to plummet, and the political actors who supported those choices—Biden, Democrats, and teachers unions—are responsible for them.

Using the American Rescue Plan to pay for tutoring is a backward plan: The public school system has already failed countless kids. Rather than funneling more money into that system and merely hoping that the system will somehow improve itself—even though increased funding for public schools has never produced better reading and math outcomes—why not just give the money to families and let them use it to procure whatever educational opportunity is in their individual child's best interest?

On many other issues, progressives understand that just giving money directly to people is better than making them jump through hoops to qualify for financial assistance with housing, food, medical care, etc. But when it comes to education, many progressives—the president among them—want to keep throwing money at a failing system. Why not fund the students instead?