A generation of American children has suffered unprecedented disruptions to their schooling and social development since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The White House recently announced that the United States faced a “national mental health crisis” that was particularly acute among children due to disruptions that have resulted in “increased social isolation, anxiety, and learning loss.” Emerging evidence shows that prolonged school closures have contributed to significant learning losses among affected children, which may reduce their career earnings and even their life expectancy.

Some of us have long argued that the widespread public school closures were unnecessary, but now policymakers, parents, and teachers must help children recover from the harms they have suffered. Lawmakers and officials must use all available resources to ensure that each child has an opportunity to reach their potential.

Policymakers are increasingly focusing on tutoring to help students get back what they lost. Research evidence shows that effective tutoring improves students’ academic achievement and a recent meta-analysis of experimental studies found that “tutoring programs yield consistent and substantial positive impacts on learning outcomes.”

One way to ensure that children can get the tutoring they need is by giving parents direct control of education funding to pay for it.

In 2021, Ohio established an “Afterschool Child Enrichment Education Savings Account” program. School-aged children living in households that earn less than 300 percent of the poverty line are eligible for $500 in a savings account that can be used for “tutoring, day camps, music lessons, study skills services, and field trips.” Ohio will distrubute these funds in 2022 and 2023, according to the Buckeye Institute.

This month, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed a law creating a new program providing funds directly to students to pay for tutoring. Eligible children receive up to $1,000 or eligible families recieve up to $3,000, with funds prioritized for those with incomes under $60,000.

States and public school districts can easily pay for these kinds of tutoring programs because they currently have more money than they can spend. As of the end of December, states had only spent 17 percent of the $184 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds allocated by Congress, meaning more than $150 billion was still available at that time. According to the Department of Education, the American Rescue Plan requires local education agencies to use 20 percent of their ESSER funding on addressing learning losses, which may include extended instruction or tutoring. State and local governments could also use some of the $350 billion in general recovery funds provided through the American Rescue Plan to address these issues.

Over the past two years, elected officials made many decisions that ultimately worked against students’ best interests. As the consequences of these mistakes become clear, policymakers must take action to help children recover from the potentially long-term damage of isolation and learning loss. Local governments and schools have billions of unspent emergency K-12 education funding to provide tutoring and education savings accounts for our most disadvantaged children.