by Joseph Backholm
August 4, 2020
The coronavirus has been disruptive to our politics, our economy, and even our decency, but perhaps nothing has been disrupted as significantly as our education system.
Harvard has already announced that it will be conducting all classes remotely for the 2020-21 school year. Meanwhile, a battle is forming between school districts, parents, and teachers’ unions over the best way to do education in elementary, middle, and high schools in the age of corona.
In Florida, the teachers union has sued the state over the governor’s attempts to require school districts to provide in-class instruction. The nation’s second-largest teachers union has authorized its teachers to strike if school districts do not meet certain demands like requiring masks or updating ventilation systems.
Parents not only want their children to resume their educational pursuits; in many cases, they need somewhere to send their children so they can work. Not all families are wanting the same thing. Some parents think schools should resume as normal because children are in a low-risk category from the virus. Other families, whose children or close relatives are vulnerable, are either removing their children completely or insisting on a range of challenging or expensive modifications to school routines and buildings.
Meanwhile, school districts face a dilemma. If they choose online education, many families will leave. If they opt for in-class instruction, teachers may refuse to teach. For schools, there seems to be no right answer. But there could be. As sticky as this dilemma is, it’s made much more complicated by the fact that families are generally denied options about where to spend their education dollars.
In other contexts, this scenario isn’t particularly unusual or difficult. If McDonald’s replaces all their meat patties with tofu, vegans will descend on McDonald’s, and everyone else will go to Wendy’s or Burger King. It may require a change in routine, but ultimately everyone will get what they want because everyone has the freedom to spend their lunch money at the place that will give them what they’re looking for.
For reasons that are almost entirely political, education doesn’t work this way. While tax money is allotted for each student, students are almost always told where they can go, not asked where they want to go. Only those with enough money to look outside the public school system have real options. We are so accustomed to a choiceless education system that many of us have not paused to consider how strange it is. We would march on Washington if our health insurance providers told us they would only cover medical treatment at the hospital closest to our house.
There’s no way for schools to meet the unique needs of every family as they navigate this global challenge, but they shouldn’t have to. Families, schools, and teachers each need the freedom to do what’s best for them, but the law says they can’t. Families aren’t allowed to choose the school that’s best for them, and schools are forbidden from hiring teachers who are a good fit for the educational approach they will choose. As a result, schools are stuck with teachers who may refuse to work, and families are stuck with schools that may not have teachers.
If the education market worked like any other market, our present dilemma would still be challenging, but it would be solvable. As it is, we’re heading for a showdown that will end with nearly everyone being frustrated.
State legislatures should be calling special sessions immediately to allow families the freedom to choose the education that works best for their unique situation. One-size-fit-all solutions to education are always a problem, but right now, they’re especially harmful. Families must be empowered to solve this problem for themselves because they’re the only ones who can. If state legislatures don’t do this, they shouldn’t expect education in the age of corona to go well. People don’t enjoy being told they have only one option if that option doesn’t work for them. It’s like being told you have one option for a burger and learning they only sell tofu.