Trump threatens aid to schools that don’t reopen, online-only district start, budget issues and more
Districts balk at order, mandatory masks, reopening plans, graduations, youths testing positive and more
We can always use more examples of teamwork. Public-school officials have such an opportunity before them as schools prepare to re-open and should to seize it – and resist calls to resort to turf warfare.
In March, Washington provided additional resources through the CARES Act so that school districts can help their schools and private schools with COVID-19-related needs. Federal officials began distributing the money just as some public-school officials objected to federal guidance on how school administrators were to use the spending.
Before taking sides, an honest—perhaps generous, in some places—assessment of school district activities during the pandemic is that school responses across the U.S. were uneven. When school buildings closed, some public officials either waited weeks to deliver any instruction to students quarantined at home or failed to do so at all. Those who observers say responded quickly, such as the ones in Miami-Dade and charter schools in low income areas in Philadelphia and Arizona, deserve credit, but by the middle of May, reports indicated that more than two-dozen large districts across the U.S. had made online work meaningless by not grading students.
The lackluster response helps to explain why recent polls have found that 40-60 percent of parents are considering homeschooling this fall. Fear over another outbreak after students are back in close quarters may also be on parents’ minds, but school districts that failed to follow through during the pandemic has some parents wondering if they could do better themselves.
School districts have another chance to earn the confidence of families, though. In April, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that districts should use CARES spending to provide services to private schools based on a private school’s total enrollment, not just the number of students in need attending private schools.
Things get technical quickly with this provision, but the usual suspects in unions ignored the details and said districts should ignore the guidance, claiming “this funnels more money to private schools.”
In reality, the main federal education law, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act, says that low-performing private school students in low-income areas can get help from public schools. This part of the law, called “equitable services,” includes tutoring and summer school. Private school officials must work with public school leaders to determine how the help will be delivered.
With the new COVID-19 spending, the Education Department said that equitable services should help all students—public and private—not just struggling students. Why? Because CARES Act money is emergency spending, not annual spending for students in low income areas.
Just as with the delivery of traditional equitable services, private school leaders and students will make these plans with local district schools—giving traditional schools the chance to show private school families that public schools can help them.
Districts have another reason to make the most of equitable services now: As groups such as Ed Choice have explained, if private schools close, taxpayers could see K-12 costs increase during the recession.
We are still plumbing the depths of a financial crisis, and smart districts are already cutting costs to prepare for next year. Larger classes at a time of limited services will not appeal to parents.
Indiana and Maine have said they will not abide by the guidance. Private schools in Pennsylvania and Colorado are challenging their state agencies’ interpretations, which are also limiting access for private school students.
Meanwhile, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said the state will follow the federal guidance. In a letter to private school educators, she said, “Public and private school leaders working together can address the true needs of South Carolina’s education system caused by COVID-19.” Florida officials have said they will also follow the department’s interpretation. Secretary DeVos said her office is working on an official rule.
Public schools should not view equitable services during the pandemic as a new front in some perceived brawl. All students and schools need help now, so public schools have a chance to be the hero. Perhaps district actions in good faith here could be used to sway public opinion during a recession should districts try to appeal to state taxpayers for more resources.
But if not, and should districts leave private schools to wither, expect more polls showing parents are ready to keep students home—even if private schools close.
Explain that to taxpayers.
The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government.”
— G.K. Chesterton, “The Man Who Was Thursday”
Our media rightly portray Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as enemy to our ancient order of officially branded “public” schools. She appears to feel a vocation to effect certain substantial changes that might prosper in our looming new society. In any case, for the moment I will assume so and agree that, to a point, if properly designed and focused, change in the system could be a blessing for many families and their children.
Paradoxically, I fear that, quite inadvertently, she has made herself an effective weapon for the defense and continuation of that relic system born of 19th century religious prejudice but today become the enemy of the poor and of any change that could empower such parents.
Ms. DeVos has been and appears yet to be a fervent apostle of the late Milton Friedman, sharing his free enterprise ideal for schooling as, in essence, just another arena of business, even if one of a unique sort.
I had the good fortune to meet Ms. DeVos in Michigan, probably in the late 1980s. The occasion for my visit was the organization of the campaign for her own designed and planned popular initiative for statewide school reform via vouchers for parents; someone had assumed that I would be a supporter. Sadly, the draft initiative was quite unsuited to the mission as I understood it – and would not be changed.
Before leaving for home, I explained my doubts to the good people who had invited me, drawing mixed reaction. I recall an elderly nun scolding me with the words of Pontius Pilate: “Quod scripsi, scripsi.” And she was right. What I had written I had written, and believed.
I still do.
The central problem with that first (then a successor) Michigan initiative was simply that Ms. DeVos had taken seriously the gospel of our mutual friend, Friedman, whom I had first known in Chicago as a repeat guest on my radio talk show. In his confident mind, both the end and means of any ideal system were to be settled, for schools as for any other salable good, with a virtually unregulated market, and, for reasons still unclear to me, he concluded that subsidies of equal value should go to all parents who applied regardless of their capacity to pay tuition.
With my wise collaborator (then and yet), Stephen Sugarman, I had always valued the efficiencies of markets, and, in the case of school, as a tool to rescue and empower poor and near-poor parents from futility and extend to them the experience of authority and responsibility already enjoyed in varying degrees by better-off families.
Any needs of the latter could be satisfied by graduated grants tending to zero at the high end of the income ladder. An ancillary hope was to diminish segregation by race as by wealth. Both purposes, we supposed, would be served if some modest fraction of every participating school’s admission decisions were to be made at random among all those applicants who had been rejected.
The DeVos Michigan-type initiative quickly became the model for free-marketeers in a dozen states, giving opponents the invitation to portray choice as a device for well-off parents to secure yet another free ride. Nor did it help then (or now) that such well-intended efforts for a wholly unregulated market secured most of the financial support for choice that came (and still does) from a relatively few wealthy sources.
Today’s activist centers promoting unregulated systems still label activists like ourselves “voucher left;” we, of course respond with “voucher right” while feeling truly entitled to claim “the middle.” By the way, all those Michigan-style initiatives were smashed at the polls.
That original DeVos choice has remained, for too many minds, the image of school choice as a right-wing threat to democracy, intended not for but against the poor. This calculated confusion has stayed well-financed by government unions, and, for a quarter-century, has remained an effective tranquilizer for the conscience of the open-minded but confused suburban voter who cherishes choice for his and her own and might otherwise be moved politically to take an interest in aiding the less lucky family.
Of course, I should and do applaud exceptions such as the schools of Milwaukee (per the great Howard Fuller) and those states, such as Florida which have painfully begun the rescue of the conscript family despite constant assault upon their efforts by the media at the coaxing of unions and pliant legislators.
For his own political reasons, Joe Biden – the could-be hero of the low-income family – has instead made clear his intention to avoid his chance to move the media debate over choice into the light of day. The opportunity for a federal clarification of the purpose and effective design of the necessary instruments of reform that can bring about the liberation of the family will be ignored. The fate of school choice will be left to the hero states.
Unless legislative leaders and governors receive some urgent vision, the poor family will unnecessarily remain an impotent institution. With the current population demand that we recognize the poor to be as human as the rest of us, might we instead begin to honor all parents as dignified fellow creatures?