Bill Bennett, education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, stressed the importance of U.S. K-12 schools steering clear of social experimentation amid rising chronic absenteeism and a notable decline in academic performance since the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s not in very good condition. It needs to be a lot better. We look at the scores… the reading scores have held fairly well. Math scores are way down. But let’s remember we were heading downhill before COVID. COVID certainly accentuated that,” Bennett told “America Reports” on Tuesday.

In light of America’s education report card, schools across the nation are observing a surge in chronic absenteeism. According to “Attendance Works,” schools where over 30% of students are chronically absent have increased from 14% in 2017-2018 to 43% in 2021-2022.

“We’ve got this missing student problem, which is now occurring. And this, I think, has a lot to do with COVID. I think a lot of adults said by their actions, school wasn’t that important,” Bennett said.

The former education chief attributed the prolonged closure of schools to the teachers union, emphasizing that some schools remained shut for an extended period of time, forming a public perception that they were not so important.

NYC HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS FORCED INTO REMOTE LEARNING AS 2,000 MIGRANTS SHELTERED IN SCHOOL INSTEAD

Bennett pointed to another factor indicating that as parents became more aware of the materials and learning methods carried out in some schools, particularly with regard to remote learning, they were concerned with what they observed.

This has prompted parents to seek alternatives to public education, and as a result, charter schools, private schools as well as homeschooling have seen ignificant growth. 

“The biggest increase we’re seeing is in homeschooling,” noted Bennett. “That’s where a lot of parents have decided that they can keep the best eye on what’s going on and teach the child what they want to teach the child and not subject the child to something that they have no business or interest in.” 

Despite the distrust some have in the U.S. public education system, Bennett acknowledged the necessity of rebuilding trust to bring parents and students back. By doing this, he emphasized the importance of schools becoming crucial institutions of learning rather than places for social experimentation.

“The answer is to make it clear that school is important, and school therefore must become important and must become again a temple of learning, not social experimentation. Not crazy wild-eyed ideas, but math, English, history, science, art and music – taught well and taught efficiently,” he said.

Only then, Bennett said, will the student come.