By Larry Sand
May 19, 2020
As traditional public schools grapple with the effects of Covid-19, many parents are awakening to school choice.
The left-right debate about how to improve education in the U.S. often comes down to money v. school choice. Many on the left bemoan the fact that we don’t “invest” more in education. It doesn’t help to point out that we already spend over $700 billion; there is an eternal cry for more. A majority of conservatives and libertarians, and some liberals, insist that giving parents a choice – public or private schools – and letting the government money follow the child is the best way to go. But due to the coronavirus, the political divide may be shrinking, and that could shake up the government school monopoly.
The results of a just-released Real Clear Opinion Research survey show that 64 percent of the parents polled support school choice. The question posed was, “School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, would you say you support or oppose the concept of school choice?” Politically, 75 percent of Republicans were in favor, and perhaps most surprisingly, 59 percent of Democrats supported the concept.
The contrast between Detroit’s public and private schools – their financing and commitment to schools – serves as a revealing case in point. Just last week a settlement was reached between Michigan and seven Detroit students. In a case filed in 2016, the young plaintiffs argued that they were “deprived access to literacy,” and, as a result, $94.5 million will be spent on literacy funding for the city’s public schools.
But is money really the problem? Detroit is among the best funded cities in the country, laying out over $14,000 per student. So maybe the problem has nothing to do with money. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Jamarria Hall, said that “teachers failed to show up for class for days and students were sent to the gymnasium to watch movies” and added that “no one, from students to teachers to administrators, seemed to care about the inferior learning environment” at his school. Detroit has a powerful teachers union, and a rigid collective bargaining contract, which among other things, makes firing incompetent teachers impossible, so I’m not sure how pouring an additional $94,500 million into a failing system is going to solve the literacy problem. Too many teachers just don’t seem to care. And to be sure, things have not improved with the advent of the coronavirus. Sadly, Michigan also has no parental choice programs, so parents without means are stuck.
At the same time, in stark contrast to public schools, Catholic schools in Detroit bend over backwards to work with their students, most notably since the advent of Covid-19. Teachers and administrators are in constant contact with pupils, making sure that their education continues via Zoom, telephone – whatever it takes during the school shutdown. Worth noting is that yearly tuition for Catholic schools in Detroit averages about $5,500 at the elementary level. Think about what a blessing it would be for poor Detroit parents (and a saving for taxpayers) to be given a voucher so that their children could escape the failing government schools and attend a Catholic or any other private school of their choosing.
While some on the left have been coming around to parental choice, teacher unions and their camp followers aren’t budging. Diane Ravitch, “a historian of American education for 45 years” who hasn’t opposed a teacher union policy or action in years, recently penned “The Coronavirus Just Might End School Privatization Nonsense” for Education Week. She writes that when school resumes in the fall, “teacher-bashing and public-school-bashing will be definitely out of place.” Trying to be humorous (and failing miserably), she adds, “The billionaires who have been funding the anti-public-school campaign for the past decade might even have the decency to find other hobbies.” She also maintains that the “public in general does not support either charters or vouchers.” To bolster that claim, she writes that in Arizona in 2018, “vouchers were rejected by a vote of 65 percent to 35 percent in a conservative state.”
That statement is at best a half-truth. While that particular bill failed, what Ravitch omits is that Arizona already has four tax-credit scholarship programs and an Education Savings Account plan in place. She also doesn’t acknowledge any of the recent polls that show parents are becoming more disposed to school choice.
Another public-private brouhaha erupted when American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten took great exception to new federal guidance that allows some coronavirus relief to go to private schools. She encouraged school districts to flout the Fed’s plan, insisting, “The guidance funnels more money to private schools and undercuts the aid that goes to the students who need it most.”
Clearly Weingarten’s animosity is aimed directly at President Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and their championing of school choice. Speaking of which, last week presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced the formation of an education task force, which includes Weingarten and National Education Association leader Lily Eskelsen García. Something tells me that promoting school choice will not be on their agenda.
Covid-19 has stirred up a hornet’s nest. With kids not in brick-and-mortar schools for the near future, parents are awakening to options – virtual schools, homeschooling, private schools, etc. Legislators should be taking notes. The unions and the educrats are getting very jittery. They should be. The monopolist’s glory days may be numbered. And that is very good news for the children, parents and citizens of America.
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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.