Sunday, November 22, 2020

Nicholas Kerr: Pandemic learning gaps make clear the need for public school reform

Approaching two months of in-person learning this school year, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas reported to parents that no cases of COVID-19 classroom transmission had occurred at its 36 schools.

Only 19 have had any lab-confirmed cases among students or employees, all of which it confidently stated have been traced to outside sources. Positive cases have touched less than one-quarter of 1% of on-campus learners. Schools in the diocese are practicing social distancing, students are wearing masks in class, parents are completing online child-screening forms in the mornings, and children are having their temperatures taken before being allowed to exit cars at drop-off.

Science predicted this sort of outcome months ago, based on what we knew about significantly lower rates of transmission among children 10 years of age and under, as well as what we knew about sensible precautions that reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. It’s also what we knew from the experience of other countries that either never shut down schools or reopened before summer.

Districts across the country that reopened this school year have had similar outcomes to the Diocese of Dallas. Reporting on this, the New York Times concluded, “Transmission by young children to adults seems to be negligible as long as safety measures are in place.”

Despite this overwhelming evidence, many schools that are only offering online learning, even in areas with lower overall rates of transmission than districts that have reopened, have no plans to offer in-person learning. Public schools from Georgia to Washington state recently announced they won’t reopen until at least January. The Fairfax County Education Association is lobbying to keep its schools closed until August 2021.

While teacher unions turned out in large numbers for 2017’s “March for Science,” it’s apparent that science doesn’t matter when it comes to the education of children in public schools. A new study out of Brown University looked at the reopening plans of around 75% of the nation’s school districts and was unable to find a consistent relationship between a district’s response and how intense the pandemic was in the area.

Rather, it concluded, “Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening.” Importantly, it also found that “districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning.”

It has long been demonstrated that the wealthy will do fine no matter the policy settings of a country. Nowhere has this been borne out more than during this pandemic. Private schools responded swiftly when lockdowns began in March, while many public school districts offered no instruction at all for an extended period of time. This school year, wealthy families are opting out of public schools in droves. Enrollments in private and parochial schools have soared, in-home tutors are being hired, and “pandemic pods” are being formed with neighbors.

The inevitable learning gap is already evident. For example, students of high-income families have increased progress in math this year by 4%, whereas those from low- and middle-income households are reporting a 9-10% drop in progress through the week ending Oct. 25, according to the Harvard-associated Opportunity Insights tracker.

Public schools are fast becoming learning institutions of last resort that offer the bare minimum of instruction to the least privileged families. Because we fund the system and not students, public schools have been on this path for a long time, but the pace has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Unions have laid bare that they care more for the status quo than the students they are supposed to serve.

We don’t force needy families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to shop at state-run grocery stores, yet we do the equivalent with our public school system. As Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie noted in a recent podcast about school choice, “Somebody with food stamps buys the same Coca-Cola and butter that you and I do. They don’t get a shitty version of that.”

Yet lower- and middle-income families who are unable to opt out of public school this year are getting subpar instruction for their children. A vast education gap between them and the children of wealthy families is forming. With public school districts unwilling to follow the science and reopen, it will continue to grow.

It’s past time for wholesale reform of the public school system so that the interests of the children who are supposed to be served by it can come first. This requires shifting funding from institutions to students so that families, wealthy or not, can find the education that best suits their needs.

One measure of a successful society is how well it takes care of its least privileged citizens. When it comes to education, we’re failing.

Nicholas Kerr, who grew up in New Zealand, is a marketing consultant in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and two small children. In his spare time he blogs at The Kerrant. This article first appeared in the Washington Examiner on October 30, 2020.

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