Fairfax County Schools recently ditched merit-based admissions process
A group of parents at the nation’s top high school is suing the county school board for adopting new admissions practices that would slash the number of incoming Asian-American students.
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a complaint Wednesday on behalf of the Coalition for TJ, a parent organization at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. In recent months, the Fairfax County School Board changed how students are admitted to the Alexandria, Va., magnet school in an attempt to boost enrollment of black and Hispanic students.
The coalition claims that the Fairfax County School Board’s newly adopted admissions processes are unconstitutional and would reduce the number of Asian-American students in the incoming freshman class by 42 percent.
In October, the Fairfax County School Board eliminated the merit-based entrance exam for the elite STEM-focused school. In December, the board limited the number of students each of the county’s middle schools can send to the high school. The lawsuit claims that this new process targets Asian Americans because the three Fairfax middle schools known for funneling students to Thomas Jefferson have predominantly Asian-American populations.
Thomas Jefferson is one of several U.S. high schools that have recently moved away from merit-based admissions in favor of practices that achieve desired racial quotas. Last month, the San Francisco Board of Education abandoned the admissions test for the city’s prestigious public high school in favor of a lottery system, claiming the former system “perpetuate[d] the culture of white supremacy.”
Harry Jackson, the parent of a black student at Thomas Jefferson High School, said that the new admissions process hurts gifted students in addition to Asian Americans.
“This is an attack on Asian Americans and on gifted education,” Jackson said at an online press conference on Wednesday. “It represents anti-intellectualism. Under the guise of trying to diversify Thomas Jefferson, they’re not doing anything to uplift the black and Hispanic community. It’s a targeted hit on the Asian community.”
Julia McCaskill, the parent of three students in Fairfax schools, said the district is blaming its failure to boost black and Hispanic enrollment rates on Asian Americans.
“Diversity is the goal for all of us and Thomas Jefferson does not belong to a certain race or group of people,” McCaskill said. “The lack of diversity of black and Latino students is a failure of the [school board], and instead of fixing those issues, they are focusing the hate on Asian Americans.”
Thomas Jefferson is a majority-minority high school. Roughly 70 percent of enrolled students are Asian. Another 20 percent are white and the remaining 10 percent comprises black, Hispanic, and other minority students.
Fairfax County Public Schools communications director Lucy Caldwell told the Washington Free Beacon that the district maintains that its new admissions process “continues to be race neutral and merit-based.” The district values diversity and says it contributes to the “richness” of education at Thomas Jefferson.
Parents across the country are increasingly tired of fights between school-district leaders and teachers’ unions over whether classrooms should open for in-person instruction.
Extended public-school closures and one-size-fits-all school systems have provided free advertising for school choice over the past year. Parents across the country are increasingly tired of fights between school-district leaders and teachers’ unions over whether classrooms should open for in-person instruction. And as their children’s learning continues to suffer, they are increasingly desperate for more options. Their desperation might just make school choice more popular, even after the pandemic is behind us.
One key factor driving parental exasperation is the obvious contrast between what public schools have done during this period and what private schools have done. While public schools in many cities remain closed, private schools and daycare centers have been fighting to safely reopen their doors for months. In fact, private schools in Kentucky went all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to provide in-person services to their customers. A private school in Sacramento County, Calif., even rebranded itself as a “daycare” by training its employees as child-care workers in an attempt to get around the government’s arbitrary closure rules. Nationwide and state-specific data confirm that private schools have been substantially more likely to reopen in-person than nearby public schools. And four rigorous studies have each found that public-school districts with stronger teachers’ unions have been significantly less likely to reopen in person.
Even more frustrating, there is no major medical reason for this disparity. In fact, keeping schools closed for in-person instruction flies in the face of the science. Last month, Center for Disease Control (CDC) researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring” and that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” In New York City, for example, the latest positivity rate reported in schools was less than a tenth of the positivity rate in the overall community. Additional studies from other countries — including Sweden, Ireland, Norway, and Singapore — similarly suggest schools are not major contributors of community spread. UNICEF also reported that “data from 191 countries show no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”
Yet certain examples of public-school behavior are particularly egregious even by these standards. For instance, while some public K–12 providers insisted on keeping classrooms fully remote, they were opening the same school buildings for in-person childcare services and charging families hundreds of dollars per child per week out of pocket. If the schools could reopen for in-person childcare services, why couldn’t they open for in-person learning? And more recently, a Chicago Teachers Union board member was caught vacationing in Puerto Rico while rallying teachers on social media to not return to work in person. But if was safe enough to travel to another country and vacation in person, then why wasn’t it safe enough to return to work in person?
Of course, some high-risk teachers have real health concerns and are looking for good-faith ways to make schools safer for them to be in. Unfortunately, unions have largely taken an all-or-nothing approach to their demands for reopening. In fact, many teachers’ unions across the country have been fighting to remain closed since the start of the pandemic. The public-school monopoly sought to protect itself at the expense of families as soon as the lockdowns began last March. The Oregon Education Association successfully lobbied that same month to make it illegal for families to switch to virtual charter schools. The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators lobbied for the same thing that month to prevent desperate families from taking their children’s education dollars to schools that had years of experience operating virtually. California took similar action by passing a bill that effectively prevented families from taking their children’s education dollars to public charter schools.
That’s not the only evidence that some teachers’ unions often prioritize politics and power over the needs of families. Take a look at some of their demands. In their report on safely reopening schools, the Los Angeles teachers’ union called for things unrelated to reopening schools, such as defunding the police, Medicare-for-All, a wealth tax, and a ban on charter schools. At least ten teachers’ unions joined with the Democratic Socialists of America to hold a “National Day of Resistance” to “Demand Safe Schools” on two occasions in less than a year. Included in their list of demands, in addition to more funding and staffing, were police-free schools, rent cancelation, unemployment benefits for all, and a ban on standardized tests and new charter schools.
Meanwhile, families have been left scrambling for nearly a year now and many children are falling behind academically, mentally, and physically. After all this, parents are beginning to realize that it is time for a change in the relationship between students and schools. They’ve recognized that it does not make any sense to fund closed school buildings when we can fund students directly instead. Think of it this way: If a grocery store doesn’t reopen, families can take their money elsewhere. If a school doesn’t reopen, families should similarly be able to take their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars elsewhere. After all, education funding is supposed to be meant for educating children, not for protecting a particular institution.
Recent nationwide polling from RealClearOpinion Research found that support for the concept of school choice jumped ten percentage points in just a few months — from 67 percent in April to 77 percent in August 2020 — among families with children in the public-school system last year. Another national survey conducted by Morning Consult found that support for several types of school choice — education savings accounts, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and charter schools — all surged between the spring and fall of 2020. The same national poll found that 81 percent of the general public — and 86 percent of parents of school-aged children — now support funding students directly through education savings accounts.
These initiatives allow families to take a portion of their children’s K–12 education dollars, which would have otherwise automatically funneled to their residentially assigned public-school district, to cover the costs associated with any approved education provider, such as private schooling, tutoring, homeschooling, microschooling, and “pandemic pods.” And, of course, families would still be able to take all of their children’s education dollars to their residentially assigned public school if they prefer.
It isn’t just voters who are changing their minds. Legislators in at least 23 states have introduced bills in the past two months to fund students instead of systems. Five of these states — Arizona, Iowa, Indiana, West Virginia, and Kansas — have already passed school-choice bills out of a chamber, and three others — Florida, Missouri, and South Dakota — have passed bills out of committees.
Language in some of this new legislation also suggests that the push to fund students instead of systems is the direct result of the inability or unwillingness of some teachers’ unions and school systems to reopen in person. Legislators in states including Utah, Maryland, and Illinois introduced bills to allow families to take their children’s education dollars elsewhere if their public schools didn’t reopen in person. The proposal to fund students directly in Georgia includes several eligibility categories — one of which happens to be for students assigned to public schools without full-time in-person instruction. Congressman Dan Bishop also introduced federal legislation to allow families to take some of their children’s K–12 education dollars to private providers if their public schools don’t reopen in person.
The good news is that teachers’ unions and others who oppose safe in-person instruction have done more to advance school choice in the past year than anyone could have ever imagined. The pandemic has revealed the main problem with K–12 education: There is a massive power imbalance between the public school system and individual families.
Families have always gotten the short end of the stick on K–12 education. But it’s more obvious now than ever, and families are figuring out they’re getting a bad deal. The only way that we’re ever going to fix that uneven power dynamic is to give families real options by funding students directly.
It’s about time we get our priorities right and fund students, not systems.
Iowa is considering legislation that would fund students directly to allows more families to access educational alternatives.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and school reopening battles across the country prompt families to search for alternative educational options for their children, school choice policies are increasingly being looked at as a solution.
This is happening nowhere more prominently than Iowa, where a bill to enact an education savings account program has passed the State Senate and is being considered in the House. But the proposal has also sparked substantial debate, the kind that tends to feature a lot of anti-school choice myths. Iowans cannot afford to let these myths block better educational opportunities for their children.
At the heart of Senate File 159 is the creation of new “Student First Scholarship” education savings accounts, into which the state would deposit funds. Eligible families could use the funds for private school tuition, like a traditional voucher, but also for myriad other educational uses, including after-school tutoring, therapy for children with disabilities, and more. Students in public schools flagged for poor performance would qualify for the scholarship and have around $5,200 put into their education savings accounts each year.
A common concern is that such a program would “siphon” money from cash-strapped public schools, hurting the children left behind. As the Des Moines Register editorialized, calling for choice “is an attempt to put lipstick on the pig of siphoning taxpayer money from public schools to funnel to private schools.”
At first blush, that may seem like a reasonable concern: having state dollars following a child to another education provider could, indeed, leave a public school with fewer funds. But that is not siphoning. It is connecting the money to the people it is most supposed to serve — children — and the funds only leave if a family has found an education provider it prefers.
Look at it this way: A family taking money for their child’s education from a public to a private school no more siphons dollars from a public school than choosing to go to Price Chopper siphons from Hy-Vee. Pell Grants similarly do not “siphon” money from community colleges just because they can be used at private universities chosen by students.
Education funding should not belong to any particular institution. It is meant for educating children.
Moreover, since only state funding would follow a child, a lot of money would stay with the public school, increasing resources for each child remaining in the public school. With Iowa spending an estimated $13,774 per public-school student according to the Census Bureau, a $5,200 savings account deposit would leave money behind.
Imagine if Hy-Vee were able to keep most of your grocery budget after you started shopping at your preferred Price Chopper. That would be a fantastic deal for Hy-Vee. The public schools similarly get to keep large sums of money for children they are no longer educating.
Perhaps the per-pupil financial gain for public schools is one reason research has found that in regions where there is more private school choice, public schools perform better. Or perhaps public schools’ improvements have to do with competition — as schools have to up their game when someone else could get their funding. Regardless, 26 of 28 studies on the topic find that school choice leads to better outcomes for children who remain in public schools.
It is the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.
And let’s be clear: Anti-choice myths disproportionately prevent the least advantaged from having educational options. The most advantaged families already have school choice. They can afford to live in neighborhoods that are residentially assigned to the best public schools. They can afford to pay out of pocket for the costs of private education.
Funding students directly allows more families to access educational alternatives. School choice is an equalizer.
Ultimately, the need for choice is simple: It is unfair to have a child’s ZIP code determine their future. Iowa should fund students, not institutions.
Despite admin pledge to reopen schools, nominee sides with unions to keep San Diego public schools closed
President Joe Biden’s pick to be deputy secretary of education is still fighting to keep students out of the classroom in San Diego, where she’s school superintendent.
Cindy Marten, the longtime superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, has been a vocal opponent of bringing back in-person instruction for public school students. The district had pledged to give a timeline for reopening on Jan. 13, but Marten failed to follow through, announcing after the deadline that no date for return will be set.
“Despite the progress that is being made and all of the best efforts of all of our employees, it’s important that we recognize that the virus continues to spread and it’s out of control in our communities,” Marten said. “This is not the time to let up on our efforts to defeat this deadly virus.”
Marten’s refusal to set a timeline for schools to reopen is in direct contradiction with Biden, who has vowed to have schools reopen within the first hundred days of his presidency. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, has said the government’s “default position” should be to get kids back in the classroom.
Recent peer-reviewed studies confirm that transmission of COVID-19 in schools is “extremely rare,” but teachers in some of the biggest districts in the country continue to resist going back to the classroom until there is mass vaccination of both teachers and students.
Former San Diego county supervisor Kristin Gaspar, a Republican who lost her district race in November, praised Marten’s “passion” for her work but said she has been hamstrung by her commitment to pleasing the unions.
“Superintendent Marten should be praised for her passion at the reins of San Diego schools,” Gaspar told the Washington Free Beacon. “Unfortunately, Marten has consistently favored the loudest voice at the decision-making table, and that is the teachers’ union. It’s alarming to us as parents to witness the strong influence of labor unions on the continued closure of public schools.”
As she works to keep public schools closed, Marten, who also serves on the board of the California Teachers Association benefits organization, continues to make over $300,000 in the taxpayer-funded role, between salary and benefits. While San Diego’s public schools continue their restrictions on in-person education, a majority of their private counterparts have opened their doors for in-person learning. A November survey found that 84 percent of San Diego students in private schools are attending in person to varying degrees, compared with only 32 percent of those in San Diego public schools.ADVERTISING
The actual curriculum of San Diego Unified School District’s classes may pose additional hurdles to Marten’s nomination. A report from the City Journal found that, amid a global pandemic, the district has prioritized abolishing deadlines for homework, mandating diversity trainings where teachers were told they are guilty of “spirit murdering” black children, and instituting an ethnic studies curriculum.
Five years into her tenure as superintendent, a Voice of San Diego report found that “gains have been incremental and difficult to measure” and that “the achievement gap Marten pledged to tackle at the outset has gone virtually unchanged.” Katrina Hasan Hamilton, the local NAACP education chair, criticized Marten’s “historical pattern of allowing the excessive suspension and expulsion of black students in San Diego.”
Marten has received support from her fellow California Democrats, including Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who has made institutionalizing sex education a priority from kindergarten onward.
Gaspar said she hopes Marten will reverse course if confirmed as deputy secretary of education and make the well-being of children her top priority.
“The inability to open our schools has led to severe increases in anxiety, depression, higher incidences of child abuse, doubling of child sex trafficking, and a rapidly growing socioeconomic divide,” she said. “As deputy secretary of education, may Cindy Marten find the strength and grace to first prioritize the well-being of students across this country that will be entrusted to her care.”
Marten’s confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled. Neither Marten nor the White House returned requests for comment.
States should broaden policies to support the school choice parents are demanding.
Nothing in the historical record has disrupted American schools quite like COVID-19. Millions of students will lose more than a year of classroom instruction. Only the most hopeful think schools will return to normalcy before next September. An entire generation can expect a drop in lifetime earnings of 5% to 10%, economists tell us. Even worse, social and emotional development have been stunted. Schools no longer provide eye and ear exams, nurse office visits, and ready access to social services. Children from low-income backgrounds are suffering the most.
Parents desperately search for alternatives. In affluent communities, neighbors have formed learning pods, with tutors and fellow parents sharing the instructional burden. Home schooling is on the rise. Families are shifting their children to private and charter schools. Entrepreneurial high school seniors are taking dual enrollment courses, hoping to finish high school and begin college at the same time. But too many children are occupying their time in other ways, with ever more high school students simply dropping out. Enrollment at public schools is falling by 5% or more. The opportunity gap is almost certainly widening between rich and poor children.ADVERTISING
But what happens after the vaccine arrives and the virus has been cornered? Will parents return to the status quo? Or are they going to demand more choices and greater control over their child’s education? Before COVID-19, nearly a third of all students attended a school of choice, including district-operated magnet schools (7%) other district options such as vocational and exam schools (6%), charters (6%), home schooling (3%), and private schools (8% using family and other private funds and 1% with school vouchers or tax-credit scholarships).
If parents have any say, the demand for choice is almost certain to increase. During the pandemic itself, parents reported teachers at charter and private schools were more likely to provide direct instruction. Loss of learning occurred everywhere, but it was less, parents said, at these schools of choice.
What state policies should govern choice practices in the coming decade? How can states ensure that choice facilitates, not hinders, equal educational opportunities? There is no one answer, as every state has its own history and geography. But as the COVID storm has raged, researchers at Stanford’s Hoover Institution came up with a few principles and recommendations that might serve as a guide.
Most important, school choice should reduce the achievement inequalities the pandemic has aggravated. Traditionally, choice has been mainly available to those who could afford to rent or buy a home in a neighborhood that had good schools.
Magnet schools were the first to break this connection between school and residence. To foster school desegregation, they offered specialized programs — math and science, performing arts, bilingual instruction, career and technical training — to attract students from all ethnic groups from all parts of the school district. Most studies indicate that, on average, students are learning more at magnets than in other district schools. In many cities, including Miami, Denver and New York, the magnet concept is being broadened to encompass the entire district. Every school is a school of choice. The schools that go unchosen are earmarked for special attention or may be closed for lack of enough students. States should facilitate more of these districtwide choice programs.
Charter schools — publicly authorized schools that operate under private auspices — are also broadening family options. In 2018 Texas charters served more than 330,000 students at nearly 800 schools, about 6% of all public school students.
Initially, studies showed little difference between the performances of students at charters and district schools, either in Texas or elsewhere. But recent studies show that cohorts of students who attend charters in Texas and nationwide are improving at twice the rate of students at district schools. The biggest strides forward are among African American students.
To facilitate their expansion, states can authorize more schools, but limit fiscal harms to school districts. In Texas and most other states, funding follows the child when the student moves either to a charter school or from one district to another. Although the fiscal policy makes sense, districts that lose enrollment still bear legacy costs, most importantly, pensions and medical benefits for retired employees. States can mitigate the political controversies by absorbing more of these legacy costs.
Some worry that charters undermine district-operated public schools by attracting the most engaged families. Fortunately, that has not happened so far: Recent evidence shows gains in student performance at district schools when they are competing with charters.
School segregation is another concern. But even though racial isolation remains widespread in most metropolitan areas, a recent study by the liberal Urban Institute finds that choice has little effect on the racial composition of schools, one way or the other.
Still, there is much that state policymakers can do to make sure that school choice enhances equal opportunity. Charter schools can be placed in locations that foster integration. States can fund transportation costs for all students, no matter what school they attend. That is both efficient and equitable. And once legacy costs are protected, choice of school should not be skewed by favorable funding for one type of school rather than another.
Going forward, states should focus on middle and high schools. Research tells us that students in fourth grade public schools have been learning their letters and numbers as well or better than in the past. The challenge schools face comes with the onset of adolescence.
Achievement slippage is well underway by eighth grade, and it becomes increasingly severe as students proceed through high school. Rising high school graduation rates are mostly a function of easier grading practices and undemanding credit recovery courses, as shown by the astoundingly high dropout rates at community colleges. Half of all students just out of high school leave a two-year college within the first year.
Choice by itself will not solve the malaise that continues to plague too much of our educational system, especially in the middle and high school years. But if students are given a wide range of options, leading to multiple types of meaningful certificates, chances improve that young people will become more adequately prepared for what comes next. The COVID-19 crisis can become the equal opportunity moment.
Joe Biden’s education transition team lead has a long history of praising China’s school system—a system the Chinese Communist Party designed to indoctrinate students.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor and the president of the California State Board of Education, has praised the Chinese Communist Party’s education system for its “magical work” in establishing a strong teacher-government presence in student life. In her 2017 book Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World, she explained the centrality of the teacher to Chinese students’ lives.
“Teachers in China are revered as elders, role models, and those whom parents entrust to shape the future of their children,” Darling-Hammond wrote. “In the Tao traditions of ritual, the phrase ‘heaven-earth-sovereign-parent-teacher’ is repeated and becomes ingrained in how people see themselves holistically governed and supported.”
The Stanford educator failed to mention that any other teacher-student “relationship” could result in imprisonment. The Chinese government continually cracks down on “Western values” in the classroom by sending state-sponsored inspectors to monitor teachers—particularly in higher education—for “improper” remarks. Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has said that China’s schools and teachers must “serve the Communist Party in its management of the country.”
Not serving it can carry steep consequences. In July, for example, Chinese professor Xu Zhangrun was placed under house arrest after he criticized Xi’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. He was subsequently fired from his teaching position at Tsinghua University—one of China’s most elite institutions—after he spoke out against Xi’s removal of presidential term limits.
In her book, Darling-Hammond also praised China for dramatically increasing spending on education. But that money has been unevenly distributed, resulting in persistent inequalities. Sixty percent of rural students drop out by the time they reach high school, and of the remaining 40 percent, only a small fraction take college entrance exams.
Similar disparities apply to teachers—yet in a 2011 Washington Post article, Darling-Hammond lauded China for boosting spending on teachers’ professional development. She also took a “detailed statement” from the Chinese minister of education at face value, in which he claimed that China had allocated “billions of yuen” to improving teachers’ “working … and living conditions.”
Such omissions appear in Darling-Hammond’s Twitter feed as well. In 2018, she tweetedthat the United States had 71 times as many school shootings as China, but declined to note that Chinese crime statistics are notoriously inaccurate. She also ignored the numerous stabbings that plague Chinese schools. In October 2018, a woman stabbed 14 children in a kindergarten class. In April 2018, nine students were murdered at a middle school.
Darling-Hammond has spent nearly her entire life entrenched in Ivy League institutions, beginning at Yale University in 1969. In 2008, she served as the lead for Barack Obama’s education transition team. Darling-Hammond had been under consideration to be Biden’s secretary of education but claimed she was “not interested” in the position, citing her desire to continue working with California governor Gavin Newsom.
The Biden team did not respond to requests for comment.
A disconcerting amount of energy has been devoted to battling parents who are trying to solve the problem that’s been dumped on their doorstep.
The kitchen table will once again serve as a makeshift desk for millions of students when they head “back to school” in the next few weeks. Seventeen of the nation’s 20 largest school districts have said that they’ll reopen with zero in-person instruction. Nationally, only about 40 percent of schools have announced plans to reopen in-person (with another ten percent planning for a hybrid model that includes some in-person instruction).
In short, close to half the nation’s K–12 schools may begin the new year remotely, a figure that will be far higher in the systems serving the most students. This painful reality, combined with teacher resistance to reopening and parental concerns about student safety, has prompted districts to work overtime promising that remote learning will be much better this fall.
While we’re big fans of making the best of a bad situation, we fear that this misplaced optimism has made it easier than it should be for school leaders to keep the doors locked this fall and has undermined commitment to the contractual arrangements, training, supports, and instruction needed to ensure that remote learning is more than an oxymoron. To be clear, remote learning is wholly in order where the public-health situation has rendered classrooms untenable. But it’s critical that parents, teachers, and school administrators in those locales proceed with no illusions.
This spring’s virtual-learning experiment was underwhelming, to say the least. Researchers at NWEA, Brown, and the University of Virginia have estimated that students will begin the coming school year already woefully behind, with just two-thirds the learning gains in reading and as little as half of the gains in math that we would normally expect. This is hardly a surprise, given that nearly a quarter of students were truant and that, even as the spring semester ground to an end, only a fifth of school districts expected teachers to provide real-time instruction.
Despite assurances from district officials that this fall’s remote instruction will be much improved, there’s a lot of cause for skepticism. For one thing, the evidence is pretty clear that, for most learners, virtual learning today is significantly less effective than classroom instruction. Research suggests that is likely to be particularly true for disadvantaged students.
Moreover, there’s little evidence that school systems worked out the kinks of virtual learning over the summer. Consider New York City’s dismal experience with summer learning. In the nation’s biggest and biggest-spending school district, despite New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza’s pledge that the city’s summer learning plan would get kids “ready to hit the ground running come September,” the program was plagued by the same problems that befell schools last spring — from technical glitches to poor curricula to sky-high truancy rates.
Less than half of districts offered any sort of professional development to their teachers over the summer, and just 20 percent have plans to provide support to teachers in a remote-learning setting. Parents have expressed frustration about the dearth of communication or guidance from their schools, and educators themselves have fretted that they’re not sure, after a lost spring, how they’ll convince students that this fall’s remote learning should suddenly be taken seriously. And, however tough it was for teachers to connect with students this spring, they’d already had six months of in-person instruction to build from; things are going to be exponentially tougher this fall for those teachers who know their students only as pixels and email addresses.
Meanwhile, teacher unions have served as another impediment. Even when the concerns sometimes seem exaggerated, one can appreciate why teachers may be hesitant about in-person schooling. Extraordinarily troubling, however, is that — once schools have gone fully virtual — more than a few union locals seem to be intent on pursuing provisions designed to hinder remote teaching and allow teachers paid as full-time educators to operate as part-time employees.
In Los Angeles, the “tentative agreement” between the district and the union stipulates that teachers will only need to deliver one to three hours of live instruction a day, with the exact amount determined by a complicated distance-learning schedule that incorporates grade level and, weirdly, the day of the week. In San Diego, the tentative agreement between the union and the district calls for three hours of live instruction a day, one “office hour” a day, and two hours of prep time for teachers (during which students are supposed to be doing “asynchronous” work, i.e. watching videos or filling out worksheets).
All of this leaves parents in a tough spot as they contemplate another lost semester, knowing their kids need more than the two hours of Zoom calls and busywork that many schools are offering. Some parents have been found a solution in “learning pods,” small, parent-organized classrooms led by a tutor or teacher that deliver a lot of the benefits of in-person schooling while minimizing risk. Others have turned to virtual charter schools with more purposeful, robust online programs. Still others have sought to transfer to smaller private schools offering some form of in-person learning.
Yet far from celebrating these attempts to do what many schools won’t, the nation’s scolds have apparently decided this a good time to upbraid and obstruct parents who dare to do more than sit and fret. Parents who form learning pods have been lambasted in the New York Times for choosing “to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy” and criticized in the Washington Post for “weakening the public education system they leave behind.” Those trying to move their kids to virtual charter schools have been fought by union leaders who, in Oregon, pressured state officials to block such transfers. And in Montgomery County, Md., parents who’d turned to private schools found local officials striving to shutter these options just weeks before the start of school.
When the public-health situation warrants it, remote learning is better than nothing. But, even before we turn to the crushing impacts on working parents and children’s mental health, it’s crucial to appreciate just what a dismal substitute today’s remote learning really is. And, while it’s far from clear that district and union leaders are focused on putting in place the measures that might help, a disconcerting amount of energy has been devoted to battling parents who are trying to solve the problem that’s been dumped on their doorstep.33
The takeaway is pretty straightforward. In most places, remote learning is going to be a mess this fall. School and system leaders should be doing all they can to reopen schools as rapidly and thoughtfully as their local health context permits. And, in the meantime, educators, community leaders, and policymakers should do all they can to help families find solutions that will work for them.
The pressure to reopen schools is on everywhere now that New York is doing it. This means something else big: Their hard opposition to school reopenings is politically devastating for Democrats.
Prominent Democrat politicians have started making huge concessions on reopening schools. Back in May, Democrats pounced after President Trump supported reopening. Despite the data finding precisely the opposite, it quickly became the Democrat-media complex line that opening schools this fall would be preposterously dangerous to children and teachers.
In July, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to put the city’s 1.1 million school kids back in schools half the week and “online learning” the rest of the week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo picked a public fight with him, saying, “If anybody sat here today and told you that they could reopen the school in September, that would be reckless and negligent of that person.”
Then on Friday, Cuomo cleared schools to open this fall, just a few weeks after making uncertain noises about the prospect as teachers unions breathed down his neck. That same day, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s minority leader, joined the Democrat messaging reversal:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tucked the posture shift into a Saturday response to Trump’s latest executive orders, saying “these announcements do…nothing to reopen schools,” as if Democrats have been all along supporting school reopenings instead of the opposite. Just a few weeks ago, Pelosi was on TV bashing Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for encouraging school reopenings, saying, falsely, “Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus. They ignore science and they ignore governance in order to make this happen.”
What gives? For one thing, New York’s richest people have fled during the lockdowns. If their kids’ tony public schools don’t offer personal instruction or look likely to maintain the chaos of rolling lockdown brownouts, those wealthy people have better choices. They can stay in their vacation houses or newly bought mansions in states that aren’t locked down. They can hire pod teachers or private schools.
And the longer they stay outside New York City and start to make friends and get used to a new place, the less likely they are to ever return. Cuomo is well aware of this.
“I literally talk to people all day long who are now in their Hamptons house who also lived here, or in their Hudson Valley house, or in their Connecticut weekend house, and I say, ‘You got to come back! We’ll go to dinner! I’ll buy you a drink! Come over, I’ll cook!’” Cuomo revealed in a recent news conference. “They’re not coming back right now. And you know what else they’re thinking? ‘If I stay there, I’ll pay a lower income tax,’ because they don’t pay the New York City surcharge.”
Reopening means swimming against their anti-Trump base and teachers union donors’ full-court press to amp school funding and slash teacher duties. That means the below-surface financial and political pressure Cuomo, Pelosi, and Schumer are under to make this kind of a reversal must be huge. It’s likely coming from not only internal polling but also early information about just how many people have left New York and New York City, as well as interpersonal intelligence from their influential social circles.
This means three things. First, the pressure to reopen schools is on everywhere now that New York is doing it. Second, Democrats’ hard opposition to school reopenings has been politically devastating. Third, all the push polls and media scaremongering promoting the idea that most parents shouldn’t and wouldn’t send their kids back to school have failed.
One of the most significant reasons it failed is that parents’ experience with online pandemic schooling was a horror show. Another is that private schools have clearly outpaced public schools’ response to coronavirus. That’s both in offering quality online instruction when forced to close, and in seeking to remain open as much and as safely as possible, all while teachers unions have been staging embarrassing tantrums over people on public payroll actually having to do their jobs to get paid, even though epidemiologists have noted “there is no recorded case worldwide of a teacher catching the coronavirus from a pupil.”
Public schools have been so clearly shown up by private schools during the coronavirus panic that state and local officials have begun to target them specifically, and have carefully included them in all onerous government burdens on school reopenings, to reduce their embarrassment and bring private schools down to the public school level as much as possible.
The most prominent recent example is in Maryland, where a local bureaucrat in one of the nation’s richest counties specifically banned private schools from safely teaching children in person, and is now battling with the state’s Republican governor over the edict. In North Carolina, many private schools are offering safe, face-to-face, five-day instruction, while most public schools are not.
Part of this is just that government bureaucrats hate individuals making their own decisions based on their own circumstances (a major reason for mask mandates, by the way). But also they’re scared because the coronavirus panic is expanding the massive fault lines inside public schooling. And public schools are a feeder system for Democrat support.
Before coronavirus hit, a near-majority of parents already thought a private school would be better for their kids than public school. People really are not happy with public education. Mostly they do it because they think it’s cheap.
But politicians’ handling of coronavirus has shown that public education is actually very expensive. The instability, the mismanagement, the lying, the public manipulation, all of it has tipped many people’s latent dissatisfaction with public schooling into open dissatisfaction. It’s a catalyst. Now many more people have decided to get their kids out of there, either by homeschooling, moving school districts, forming “pandemic pods,” or finally trying a private school.
Like all the rich people leaving locked-down locales, parents removing kids from locked-down public schools have scared public officials. If just 10 percent of public-school kids homeschool or join a private school for two years, that is a watershed moment for the social undercurrent of animosity towards public schools. That is especially true in the government funding era we’re entering, in which government debt and health and pension promises are set to gobble up education dollars faster than ever, a dynamic that was already ruinous before it was accelerated further by the coronavirus.
This is dangerous to Democrats’ political dominance because the education system tilts voters their way through cultural Marxism, and because public education is a huge source of Democrat campaign volunteers and funds. Now Democrats have detached people from their conveyor belt. The consequences will be huge.
Reopening public schools the way Democrats are doing is not going to stave off this tsunami, either. New York City’s “reopening,” for example, includes several days per week of distasteful online instruction, as well as a rule that a school will close for two weeks any time two inmates test positive for COVID. That’s a recipe for endless school brownouts that will drive parents and kids nuts. Humans simply can’t live under this manufactured instability, by the pen and phone of whatever self-appointed petty little dictators feel like changing today.
Democrats are trying to have it both ways. They’ve learned that parents are not going to put up with putting school indefinitely on hold when everything from swimming to climbing stairs is more dangerous to children. But they also want to maintain the fiction that coronavirus is an emergency situation that requires tossing trillions of dollars in deficit funding out of helicopters, keeping people cooped up and restive as an election nears, and purposefully choking the nation’s best economy since before Barack Obama got his hands on it.
Democrats are their own worst enemy. The problem is, the rest of us are so often their collateral damage.
If there is a potential silver lining to the United States' experience with COVID-19, it can be found in the domain of primary and secondary education, where the demand for alternatives to traditional public schools is surging. The pandemic has both laid bare the US education gap and pointed the way to a solution.
STANFORD – After years of rumblings for change in US education, the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a catalyst for improving the system. America’s educational divide – especially in grades K-12 (elementary through high school) – is now clearly visible for anyone to see. Disparities in quality and access to education are a major source of the economic, social, and racial inequalities that are driving so much social unrest from Austin and Oakland to Portland and Seattle. Whether they come from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods or the suburbs, the least-educated Americans have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic effects.
Fortunately, economist Thomas Sowell (my colleague at the Hoover Institution) has offered a solution. In his new book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, he shows that schools with more autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools are closing the educational divide, providing sorely needed choice, opportunity, and competition.
Sowell’s careful analysis of the data, which was available before the pandemic struck, shows that students in publicly funded but privately operated charter schools like Success Academy in New York City score remarkably higher on standardized achievement tests than do those in traditional public schools. The book contains reams of convincing evidence, all of which is explained beautifully and presented clearly in more than 90 pages of tables.
Sowell controls for many factors, including school location: students at charter schools within the same building as a traditional public school perform several times better on the same tests. And he supplements the hard data with simple evidence, such as the long waiting lists to get into the better performing charter schools. But if charter schools work so well, what explains the enemies mentioned in the book’s title? Critics of charter schools would list many reasons, but the main one, Sowell laments, is that public schools simply do not want the competition.
Will the COVID-19 crisis finally change things? There are already positive signs that it has. Last month, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled a new, five-year $85 million scholarship fund that will help students from lower-income families in Washington, DC go to schools of their choice. It is part of her department’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded school-choice initiative in the United States. The average income of families in the program is less than $27,000 per year, and more than 90% of students in it are African-American or Hispanic/Latino.
In another promising sign, US Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee recently introduced a bill to direct some of the educational relief funding in this year’s US Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to school-choice programs. That money would enable lower-income families that are hard-pressed by the pandemic to send their children to alternative schools. Among other things, the legislation would direct 10% of CARES Act educational funds toward scholarships for private-school tuition or reimbursement for homeschooling costs.
But most telling, perhaps, is the fact that many families and individuals are coming up with their own solutions. Consider the sudden blossoming of pandemic learning “pods,” wherein parents get together, find teachers, and form a class for kids in the neighborhood. Learning pods are a natural civil-society response to school closing in many districts in California and elsewhere. When schools suspend services, parents immediately will seek out alternative solutions, especially when they have concerns about their children’s ability to learn remotely.
Of course, learning pods already have enemies of their own, with critics complaining that the practice is unfair, harmful for traditional schools, or available only to those who can afford to hire teachers. But that is all the more reason to make high-quality, effective schools more widely accessible. Quashing new ideas is not the answer.
The struggle over pandemic-era education is quickly moving to statehouses. In June, as part of the new state budget, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 98, which caps per-student state funding for charter and public schools at last year’s funding levels. The point is to limit charter school enrollments at a time when demand for alternatives to traditional public schools is surging. But with those public schools closing and resorting to remote teaching, students from lower-income households will be the ultimate victims.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday
There are already at least 13,000 students waiting to enroll in charter schools in California. But owing to SB98, notes State Senator Melissa Melendez, “if you are in a school that is failing that is really too bad. You are just going to have to stay there and deal with it. That is not fair to the student or the parent.”
In his book, Sowell points out that, “Those who want to see quality education remain available to low-income minority neighborhoods must raise the question, again and again, when various policies and practices are proposed: ‘How is this going to affect the education of children?’”
If we all focus squarely on that question, the pandemic’s long-term impact on education could turn out to be highly beneficial.
It looks the same in all of my local Facebook groups: “Looking for a small group of 1st graders to go in on a homeschool type pod where we hire a retired or not comfortable to go back teacher to facilitate daily learning.”
The volume of these posts led to a spin-off group of almost a thousand members with hardly any advertising. The whole objective of the spin-off is for families to advertise the “pods” they want to build based on age, location, the degree of caution they’re exerting, and study goals. And it’s chock-full of posts like the one above, sharing a theme: Parents are trying to connect with other parents and with teachers to supplement or completely replace the lessons planned in public schools.
With many school districts announcing they won’t return to the classroom until at least winter or late fall, with parents still reeling from the disaster that was distance learning last school year, parents are banding together and forming their own “micro-schools.” This is a grassroots plan not without controversy.
A woman in the Bay Area in California wrote on the phenomenon, which is taking place near her as well. “This is maybe the fastest and most intense PURELY GRASSROOTS economic hard pivot I’ve seen, including the rise of the masking industry a few months ago,” she wrote. “Startups have nothing compared to thousands of moms on facebook trying to arrange for their kids’ education in a crisis with zero school district support.”
She continued, “The race and class considerations are COMPLETELY BONKERS. In fact, yesterday everything was about people organizing groups and finding matches– today the social justice discussion is already tearing these groups apart.”
Government intervention isn’t always the answer. Here’s what the government can do: allow parents and families the flexibility to take the money the state should be spending on their children and allow that money to follow those children to pods, tutors, or functioning online options.
There are countless teachers and teachers’ unions protesting the idea of going back to work. If they aren’t comfortable, there is nobody forcing them back. And it’s time to call their bluff, as President Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers in 1981. When 11,000 of them went on strike, believing themselves to be irreplaceable, the president called their bluff and said, “Tell them when the strike’s over, they don’t have any jobs.”
In a sane world, teachers’ unions would not have outsized power to throw temper tantrums, and this is how we’d handle such a situation. We would fire any teacher not wishing to return to the classroom without a documented medical reason and funnel their salaries into a fund that students could then use to supplement their education.
Garden State Equality claims its curriculum is for the good and safety of vulnerable children. Its teachings, however, result in the exact opposite.
A little more than a year ago, the New Jersey Legislature passed, and Gov. Phil Murphy signed, a law mandating the teaching of LGBT subject matter in public school curriculum, beginning in 2020-21.
In response to the law, the activist group Garden State Equality has prepared a curriculum, currently piloted in 12 New Jersey schools and planned to be employed statewide in the fall. This is consistent with Murphy’s vision. At Garden State Equality’s 2019 Ball, he said, “I applaud Garden State Equality for not only leading this effort, but for your continued work in helping to craft this curriculum.”
Garden State Equality (GSE) is an LGBT advocacy organization devoted to instilling its vision of “justice” through an “LGBT lens” in society. Consistent with its vision, GSE’s self-described “LGBT-inclusive” curriculum spans all subjects — math, English, social studies, health, science, visual and performing arts, and world languages — beginning in fifth grade. Having New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students see the world through a LGBT lens is the goal in every class and, thus, now the goal of public education. This is well in excess of the curriculum law’s vague requirements.
In the way it is being implemented, the law is simply an instrument empowering GSE to accomplish its mission and vision, embedding sexual and gender ideology throughout curriculum. GSE envisions its curriculum “as a model that we can bring to every other state in the nation.”
A number of grassroots parent coalitions from across New Jersey, representing the state’s diversity, are raising awareness about and opposing the co-opting of public school curriculum for such ideological purposes. Historically, public schools have been the gateway to American society for immigrant families. But now, immigrant families all over New Jersey are deeply troubled and perplexed regarding the apparent goals of public education and the interests it serves.
New Jersey’s more than 600 school districts are not technically required to adopt GSE’s curriculum, although they are required to comply with the new state LGBT curriculum law. GSE is also substantially involved in drafting the New Jersey Department of Education’s “guidance” to schools about implementing the LGBT curriculum law. However, New Jersey school districts are not required to accept such state “guidance,” allowing districts to take a careful and educated approach to the curriculum law’s implementation.
The sexual and gender ideology advanced through GSE’s curriculum, and through its direct involvement in the state’s guidance to public schools, should be rejected by the boards of education of all New Jersey school districts for at least the following reasons.
The stated goal of sexual and gender ideology is to “get rid of the gender binary.” At public hearings concerning the school curriculum, advocates consistently characterize such a goal as a “must.”
We cannot get rid of the gender binary, however, as humans are a sexually dimorphic species. This reality can be denied, silenced, threatened, and punished. But it cannot be “rid of.” The existence of every person is proof of the union of what is uniquely male and uniquely female. While GSE may reject this most basic truth of humanity, it cannot eradicate it. And New Jersey public schools should not partner with its futile efforts to do so.
Beyond denying the gender binary, GSE insists a biological male who calls himself a woman is, in fact, a woman. If that’s the case, what is a woman? “Woman” becomes a word without meaning — as is the case when a biological female claims she’s a man. GSE’s ideology commands students to use such words. This does not educate, enlighten, or advance understanding. It mandates irrationality within school curriculum.
GSE claims its teachings are for the good and safety of vulnerable children. Those teachings, however, result in the exact opposite. GSE demands giving puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to children, impeding the development of their bodies’ more than 37 trillion cells. It even demands the removal of healthy body parts, which is profoundly evil. These practices are the sexual, physical, mental, and emotional abuse of children, manipulating their bodies to conform to an ideology.
Teaching and endorsing such practices doesn’t educate, but makes students vulnerable to abuse. I don’t use the words “abuse” and “evil” to be inflammatory, but because they fit the described practices. GSE doesn’t accept the right of anyone to impede the imposition of its will on children’s minds and bodies, preventing even parents from taking actions to protect their own children from abusive measures.
The sexual and gender ideology of GSE and like-minded advocates addresses the most basic questions of life and meaning concerning our humanity. It even has its own language and vocabulary, which it expects everyone to adopt. It is a totalizing and comprehensive belief system, which functions as a religion. Instituting compulsory teaching within public schools effectively establishes such ideology as a state religion.
One of its core convictions is intolerance for any dissent. It mars those who disagree with epithets, such as “haters” and “bigots,” applying these labels to many families and students within every school district in New Jersey who would dare express disagreement. These accusations even include parents who object to giving their own child the harmful drugs commanded by sexual and gender activists.
The ideology insists that every new word or idea must be affirmed. Acceptance of sexual and gender ideology renders a person defenseless to its demands. None of this carries educational value.
The Kelsey Coalition, formed in 2019 by “a group of concerned parents whose children have been harmed by transgender healthcare practices,” can serve as a resource to school districts, allowing them to make informed decisions for educating and protecting New Jersey students. As its website indicates, its membership now includes:
Surely, it would be highly immoral, unethical, and contrary to the educational and health interests of students not to inform them of the severe and irreparable harms that result from transgender physical interventions. Sexual and gender ideology pathologizes puberty, teaching that its suppression is a “treatment.” This article from an endocrinologist would educate students regarding life-altering effects on brain development, bone density, and sexual function, among other harms.
Regarding sex and gender, we are often warned against being on the “wrong side of history.” One day, the story will be told, and a chapter will cover what was done to children’s minds and bodies in the latter half of the 2010s into the 2020s. It will be included among the atrocities in the story of humanity’s inhumanity. It will be regarded with special horror because children will have been victimized in an impossible attempt to vindicate false adult beliefs and behaviors.
This historical moment provides an opportunity for every board of education member of every school district in New Jersey to be on the side of the story in which people courageously took a stand to protect children from such harms and horrors.
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
by Scott Vanatter
The night the Challenger Shuttle exploded, January 28, 1986, President Reagan was due to deliver the annual State of the Union. The White House decided to postpone that speech and instead the president delivered one of the most memorable presidential messages. Reagan spoke from the Oval Office at the White House. The speech was written by Peggy Noonan.
Until that day, he said, “We’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes….. We mourn their loss as a nation together. For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much.” Continue reading