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I am dreaming…of Summer Learning!

• Cara Candal

Winter makes its appearance this Saturday, and I am already dreaming of the longer and warmer days of summer that lie ahead. As we all take a break over the next few weeks, I wanted to leave 2019 with some parting thoughts on how states can fix a hidden opportunity gap—summertime learning accounts for low-income students.

When it comes to education, it’s no secret that wealthy families have the advantage. Whether it’s the ability to buy property in a resource-rich, high-performing school district or to pay private school tuition, parents of means have choices that lower-income parents don’t. And there are other, less discussed advantages that children of the wealthier parents enjoy, such as specialized opportunities for out-of-school learning.

Consider parents who already have access to a high-performing school district, but send their child to supplementary math classes, like Kumon, because they want to ensure a competitive edge for college entry. Or what about the child whose after-school programming is not state or federally mandated tutoring, but enrichment classes, like art or music, which have been shown to positively impact civic engagement and social tolerance?

Another advantage for families of means is the ability to access summertime learning opportunities. Whether students attend math camp or band camp, they are having an experience that is enriching. Many low-income and middle-class families struggle to provide such a summer for their children.

The impact of summertime learning experiences is real, and it cuts both ways. Research shows that children who are engaged in various summertime learning experiences not only retain more of what they learned in school the previous year, they sometimes add to it over the summer. Children who do not have access to such enrichment, however, are more likely to experience “the summer slide”—a loss of learning that occurs in some subjects during the summer months when children are not engaged in cognitively stimulating activities. So, those who are already ahead gain ground over the summer, while those who started off behind lag even further. This is an inequity that is overlooked in policy discussions of achievement and opportunity gaps.

But an exciting program out of Florida contains the kernel of an idea that might help to remedy educational inequities that are exacerbated over the summer. It’s a reading scholarship account (RSA), passed in 2018, that provides $500 in government money to public school students in elementary school who are struggling in reading based on the state’s English language arts assessment. The idea is simple: locate the students who need help and make it easier for parents to access that help.

The same approach could work for summertime learning. Much like the RSA, parents would receive a deposit of government funds (enough to reflect the real cost of an average summertime learning option in the state) into an account that they jointly manage with government. They could then use those funds to purchase summertime learning experiences that the state has approved. Students could access one-to-one tutoring or put the money toward an academically enriching summer camp. Students with special educational needs could continue to receive therapy support over the summer. Nationally, the average cost of summer camp is $125 a week. $500 for an entire summer would provide weeks of enrichment for children who wouldn’t otherwise have access.

Education scholarship accounts are one of the fastest-growing innovations across the United States. They are customizable to individual student needs, and they can be used for various purposes. From special education services to tutoring, reading interventions to summertime learning, it’s time we think creatively about how policies can meaningfully close opportunity gaps.

About the author

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.