The terrible tradeoff of keeping schools closed

Keeping kids out of school this year would be a different sort of economic catastrophe, but one every bit as serious as the deep recession from which we are currently recovering. School is not just daycare for younger students so more of us can go to work. Nor is it just a “credentialing” mechanism for older students that allows future employers to find the best workers. One of the strongest and most persistent findings of modern economics is that schooling really does something important to help kids become high-functioning adults, including as workers in an advanced, globalized economy. Those findings are seen to be as true today as when they were first identified in the 1950s. Indeed, a 2018 World Bank analysis shows the benefits increasing since 2000.

It is really not controversial: Missing school is tremendously harmful, harm that can be quantified in reduced future earnings. And it is not a small reduction. A new calculation by economist Michael Strain, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, finds keeping kids home for another semester after the spring shutdown represents a loss of over $30,000 per decade in future earnings for a typical worker who graduated high school but didn’t attend college. And if kids only get online schooling until September 2021, the losses for many would likely be even larger.