Among its multiple alterations, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21 may be undermining the role of public schools in the United States, in place since the middle of the 19th century. It is a reassessment that is long overdue.
A relevant anecdote is Ronald Reagan’s famous explanation that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him. Across the country the past year, that has been the experience of parents with children in many of the nation’s public systems—abandoned by schools they’ve supported with their tax dollars.
In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest system is on the brink of a strike, despite pleas from the city’s progressive mayor, Lori Lightfoot, for the teachers to return. Unions are resisting opening in Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington. Michael Mulgrew, head of the teachers union in New York City, says the schools may not open “until September.”
San Francisco’s Board of Education has enough time on its hands to vote 6-1 to cancel the names of 44 Americans from their public schools. On Wednesday, the city sued its own school board for failing to get the schools open.
Though teaching modes vary by state, what data exist suggests in-person teaching at public schools is below 25%, while it’s about 60% at private schools, which have largely reopened.
At the start of the pandemic, the closures were understandable. They no longer are, with even the oh-so-careful Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying there is scant evidence of significant virus transmission among grade-school-age children.
Some public districts are performing, as are many dedicated teachers. But parents aren’t waiting for the next school-board election to file complaints. They are voting with their children’s feet.
Data released this week show enrollment in California’s K-12 public schools has dropped by 155,000 students, a record. Enrollment in New York City is down 43,000, and about 25% of schools have lost 10% or more of their enrollment. In Virginia, it’s down 45,000 students. Enrollments have fallen in Texas, notably in progressive Austin, down nearly 7%.
Asked why Chicago’s teachers would be threatening to strike now, President Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, answered, “money.” Give Mr. Klain an A-plus for honesty.
One might wish to believe politicians such as Ms. Lightfoot or New York City’s Bill de Blasio are begging the teachers to return out of concern for the children. Reality check: Funding levels for public schools in many cities are a function of enrollment levels. By pulling their kids out of these schools, parents are removing the automatic funding floor.
For parents distraught at what is happening to their kids, such as falloffs in math skills achieved before the pandemic, the budgeting arcana might seem beside the point. For the Democratic Party, the political implications are grave.
Because of outmigration, population was already falling for California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Their tax bases are shrinking. Now if school enrollments stay down, the number of unionized teachers will contract, bleeding political support from the Democrats’ vital urban base.
When Mr. Klain says it’s about the money, he means the purpose of Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion “stimulus” is to create a long-term prop beneath these states’ collapsing school finances, infrastructure, Medicaid payments—everything.
Running alongside this challenge to the Democratic Party’s base is the beginning of a social upheaval: Parents are losing faith in the public school system’s fundamental purpose—to educate their children and produce competent citizens.
The national associations for private schools and home schooling report significant, recent increases in enrollments for these alternatives. So do Catholic schools, which have worked hard to stay open with in-person instruction.
Some parents are creating “learning pods” or microschools, assembling a small number of kids in a home or common facility and hiring a trained teacher. It sounds like an upgrade of the one-room schoolhouse taught by a no-nonsense schoolmarm—before boards of education took over.
Critics will carp that all this will create more income disparity. Perhaps so, but where were these people when the public schools began to fail students years ago?
In fact, the first people out the public-school door some 30 years ago were not well-off liberals but inner-city black and Hispanic parents. They started pulling their children out of increasingly undisciplined and disorganized public schools to put them in charter schools, or in private and parochial schools using scholarship tax credits and vouchers.
So now parents who live in neighborhoods with “good” schools are discovering what minority parents in tougher areas a few miles away have known for years: Unions are at the front of the line, kids in the rear.
You would think this crisis of confidence would force a rethinking among Democrats about the public schools. It won’t. Reform hasn’t happened for years and won’t kick in now. Mr. Biden campaigned throughout the pandemic closures saying repeatedly he is all in on sustaining the current union-first model.
Inexorably, the pandemic is shifting the ground beneath public schooling. For a lot of parents, the search for alternatives will continue. It can’t happen soon enough.
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Appeared in the February 4, 2021, print edition.