- - Thursday, August 20, 2020

It’s becoming increasingly clear that decisions about whether and how to reopen U.S. schools are being driven by state or local politics rather than objective health risks.

Despite evidence that many families are struggling with remote learning and going online could leave many children a full year behind, some teachers’ unions across the country have waged campaigns for education to remain fully remote. And unfortunately, their strategy seems to be working.

Data from Education Week reveals that school districts with powerful teachers’ unions, and those in states that require union membership as a condition of teacher employment, are significantly less likely to reopen — even after adjusting for district size and COVID-19 prevalence and deaths.

Conversely, local support for President Trump, who previously threatened to defund schools if they don’t reopen, is significantly correlated with the likelihood that a school district will reopen schools. Shockingly, there’s no significant statistical relationship between local COVID-19 risk and reopening decisions.

It’s also becoming clear that one-size-fits-all approaches by school districts or states are inevitably going to let down many students and parents. Gallup polling shows a near-even three-way split in parental preference between full-time in-class learning, full-time distance learning and hybrid models. Even informal surveys within the same locality show great variation in parental satisfaction with virtual learning, and in their preference for full-time in-class instruction.

There are important reasons for this. Some parents are more capable than others of staying at home to support their child’s learning, affording child care, or undertaking flexible work arrangements. Different children also thrive under different learning conditions.

And though health experts have called for reopening decisions to be based on community transmission rates, the risk for individual families varies significantly based on factors like household size and contact with elderly or at-risk relatives.

The most obvious way to empower parents to access education that’s suitable for their children and family would be to fund them directly. By allowing parents to spend the taxpayer dollars earmarked for their child’s education on the educational option that fits their needs, their children will no longer be constrained by the approach chosen by the local school district.

This is similar to Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that already exist in states like Arizona, but which generally only apply to students in special circumstances. It’s also in-line with Mr. Trump’s statement last week that if parents want in-class instruction and their local schools won’t open, then public monies should follow students to schools willing to open and serve. 

Much has been written about how typically affluent parents are withdrawing from traditional schools to form “microschooling pods” with fellow parents to share the resource burden of remote learning or homeschooling. Expanding ESAs to all low-income families would afford them this option and make schooling more equitable.

But “school choice,” an often controversial and politically fraught subject in the United States, isn’t the only way to support parents. Public schools can better serve families by adapting how they deliver their own education.

In Denmark, for instance, where the state gives school leaders more say in schooling delivery and resource allocation, reopenings replicated the “pod” strategy of microschools by reducing “class” sizes to a dozen or so kids. There should be no reason why U.S. school districts can’t adopt or offer parents concerned about COVID-19 health risks the same thing.

Conversely, school districts that offer in-person learning should also offer online options to parents who aren’t comfortable with full-time in-class instruction. And if they can’t, then adopting open enrollment policies, such as Arizona’s, would allow families to enroll in alternative school districts that offer their preferred mode of education. 

And while American students’ remote learning experience over the spring was often a disaster, districts and schools that continue to teach online can learn from some best practices.

In Success Academy charter schools, for instance, the interpersonal interaction and sustained engagement of classroom learning was replicated virtually by delivering online video lectures from the charter school network’s best-performing teachers. In addition, teachers hosted small and interactive virtual discussion groups where they could keep track of students’ learning. The offering garnered supportive feedback from parents.

Schools and districts that struggle with virtual learning should be able to subcontract with other schools, charter school networks or even private providers who have expertise. 

Sadly, teachers’ unions in places like Alaska have opposed such policies while making nativist arguments about choosing Alaskan educators instead of those located interstate where the provider is based. Yet, such arguments only favor particular interest groups at the expense of students and families who’d be denied an education that could work better for them.

Politically driven one-size-fits-all approaches to school reopening are on course to hurt students. Giving families multiple options and giving district and school leaders the freedom to innovate will be crucial to ensure traditional schools can continue to survive and thrive while serving kids best in these difficult times.

• Satya Marar is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a Young Voices contributor.

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