Two Coronavirus Education Pauses That Make Sense

We must be prudent about what we do, and not use the immediate response to this temporary situation to make permanent, costly changes.

March 19, 2020 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes​.com on March 19, 2020.

Ordinarily, I would not support a blanket pause in federal student loan repayments. In contrast, I ordinarily would support halting federally mandated K-12 testing. The far‐​from‐​ordinary coronavirus has brought these things together.

Student loans entered the coronavirus discussion when President Donald Trump said last week that the administration would pause interest payments on such loans for, presumably, the duration of the nation’s concerted, mass‐​quarantine response to the virus. While we await details for that proposal, it has spurred discussion of bigger potential student loan relief measures.

With the caveat that we are in uncharted waters and I may be overlooking something, the action that makes the most sense is a simple repayment pause for all borrowers. That may not be simple legally—at the very least, I don’t think the executive branch alone has the authority to declare a blanket pause—but conceptually it seems reasonable. It would avoid labor‐​intensive, case‐​by‐​case decision‐​making while acknowledging the reality that when all Americans are being strongly urged, and sometimes forced, to stay home and cease most commerce, many borrowers will struggle to make payments.

The situation does not justify cancellation of all loans or even monthly payments, as some groups, and policymakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), are proposing. The federal government has already budgeted based on loans being repaid, we have an almost $24 trillion national debt, and people with degrees typically have much higher earnings than those without. The coronavirus response is a temporary situation, while those would be long‐​term financially, and arguably even morally, damaging actions. And no, we do not need loan cancellation for economic “stimulus,” especially considering that our main problem is not people lacking funds to engage in commerce, but lacking the physical willingness or ability to do so.

The other big education pause that makes considerable sense is issuing waivers to states from the federal requirement to administer statewide standardized tests to evaluate schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act. With the massive disruptions caused by school closures and movement to online learning, whatever data the tests produced would be largely useless to evaluate schools.

Testing might furnish interesting data to see how large—or maybe small—the disruption’s effect is, but given how deep the disruption is the tests must not be high‐​stakes, with real ramifications for schools that perform poorly. But if the tests are not high‐​stakes, this year’s results would be dubious even for assessing the effect of the disruption because the basic incentives surrounding the testing—“counting” versus “not counting”—will have changed.

Of course, standardized testing was limited in its ability to inform before the coronavirus disruption, and unlike the clear reasons that people should ultimately repay their loans, there are good arguments for ending federal testing mandates entirely. But both testing and loan‐​repayment pauses under the coronavirus threat should be temporary, and lasting changes only made through a normal legislative process. We must not fall prey to the temptation to take advantage of a crisis and rush through major reforms we’ve always wanted.

Coping with a pandemic is a new experience for just about everyone in the United States, and given the lock‐​down we’ve all been told to enter, it makes sense for Washington to relieve people of burdens that the extraordinary times may render them unable to bear. But we must be prudent about what we do, and not use the immediate response to this temporary situation to make permanent, costly changes.

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