Technology is enabling parents to find new education enrichment opportunities for their children. But policymakers must close the education enrichment gap between rich and poor families to ensure equal opportunity.
Education scholar Matthew Ladner writes that Airbnb offers a glimpse into the future of American education. While Airbnb is well-known for establishing an online marketplace for travelers to rent temporary housing, the service is now featuring “experiences” that can be purchased. Ladner writes:
Members of the Ladner clan did this recently, choosing to go on a beach walk with a marine biologist, walking shelter dogs on the beach and taking a whale watching tour. The universe of choices is far broader than this, offering a huge variety of tours on land, sea and air, arts activities, physical activities, culinary experiences and much more.
It’s easy to imagine how this service can be leveraged to enrich children’s outside of school learning opportunities. But Lander rightly points out that children from rich families naturally are more likely to benefit from this enrichment. Historical Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that families from the top income quintile spend nearly $9,000 annually per-child on enrichment while low income families spend just $1,300.
At FREOPP, I have been writing that differences in outside of school learning opportunities are a great source of inequality in American education. In our 2019 review of the state of equal opportunity in K-12 education, I highlighted research from the RAND Corporation showing that the summer learning slide was cumulative. RAND researchers explained:
Over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap. It may be that efforts to close the achievement gap during the school year alone will be unsuccessful.
At the time, I argued:
Examining and identifying policies to boost access to educational enrichment opportunities and to close the summer learning gap hold promise for strengthening equal opportunity.
Of course, the pandemic has exposed the great differences in children’s outside-of-school learning experiences. Middle- and upper-income families have been far better equipped to navigate the challenges of remote learning.
What can policymakers do to close the education enrichment gap? One promising option is to fund and expand children’s savings account programs to give children from lower-income households more direct control of education resources. As I wrote for FREOPP last summer, children’s savings account programs (which involve providing seed investments into children’s 529 accounts at birth or during their early years) have shown great promise. Policymakers should expand and leverage these types of programs by creating new options for providing funding into low-income children’s 529s and expanding the allowable uses of those accounts to include tutoring and other outside-of-school enrichment options.