Inez Stepman joins to discuss this month’s policy focus: The Impact of COVID-19 on our Education System. With so much uncertainty around schools reopening, we discuss the effectiveness of online learning—have public schools successfully adapted, what can we expect as we approach the typical back-to-school-season, and have we been presented with an opportunity to view educational choice and parental involvement as a posture that’s likely to remain.
Inez Stepman is a senior policy analyst at Independent Women’s Forum. Her research focuses on educational freedom, school choice, and the cultural impact of empowering parents with control over their children’s education. Her thoughts on education policy have been published in numerous outlets, such as Washington Examiner, The Hill, and others, and she frequently testifies as an expert in state legislatures across the country. She also is a senior contributor to The Federalist, where she writes on subjects ranging from feminism to fashion, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a women’s daily newsletter.
And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today’s episode, we dive into this month’s policy focus, the impact of COVID-19 on our education system. With so much uncertainty around schools reopening, we’ll discuss the effectiveness of online learning. Have public schools successfully adapted? Also, what can we expect as we approach the typical back to school season? And finally, has this presented an opportunity to view educational choice and parental involvement as a posture that’s likely to remain?
But before we dive in, IWF does know that many Americans are facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19 and that it’s more important than ever to show what America is made of. IWF is highlighting American ideals of ingenuity, generosity and kindness, from everyday Americans donating blood to companies providing free food and housing. It’s a beautiful reminder that we’re in this together. Visit iwf.org or check us out on Facebook and Twitter and follow our campaign using hashtag in this together, that is hashtag in this together, to learn more.
And now to our guest, the author of this month’s policy focus. Inez Stepman joins us. She is a senior policy analyst at Independent Women’s Forum. Her research focuses on educational freedom, school choice, and the cultural impact of empowering parents with control over their children’s education. Her thoughts on education policy have been published in numerous outlets, such as The Washington Examiner, The Hill, and others. And she frequently testifies as an expert in state legislatures across the country. She is also a senior contributor to The Federalist, where she writes on subjects ranging from feminism to fashion, and is the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a women’s daily newsletter. I do read that newsletter every day and always enjoy your fashion tips, Inez. So thank you for that and also for joining us on She Thinks today.
Well, it’s great to be here and great to hear that you’re a BRIGHT subscriber.
I am. I enjoy it. I think it always gives good focus to issues specifically that women care about. And education, the area that you focus your research on, is an area that people care about. And I would assume that researching this area, it’s been the most interesting time in your life studying it because I would say other than healthcare, this has been that institution that’s been disrupted the most due to COVID-19. What has it been like to delve into educational policy during such an uncertain time?
It’s a bit like jumping into the deep end, that’s for sure. But that’s certainly the position that a lot of schools find themselves in, and districts and various administrative units find themselves in. That being said, there comes a point where we have to evaluate their performance, even especially as we’re not in the introductory weeks of this crisis. Right? A lot of schools have already, most schools in fact, have already wrapped up their school years. Many of them wrapped up in May. And honestly, overall, they’ve done a pretty disappointing job adjusting to this crisis, and they’re causing a lot of unnecessary stress and frustration among parents.
And so, what are some of those specifics? I mean, I know that I see what parents put up there. Some of them had to work during all this, or were working through all of this, so they couldn’t be there to help their kids. Some were struggling with Wi-Fi access. Some families, not enough computers. Some, the school system didn’t do well adapting to online. What have you found to be some of the common problems of not just what families were facing, but that school districts were facing?
Well, one of the problems during this “accidental homeschooling” phase, which is what I like to call it, accidental homeschooling, is that this isn’t really homeschooling and it’s not really school. Right? So it’s trying to duplicate the classroom environment at home through various internet and other services. And that really hasn’t worked very well because while there are schools and institutions that are used to implementing digital learning that actually do it as their primary method of learning with students, most schools were not used to doing that. So there were some unacceptable delays even in getting any kind of online learning to most students. In fact, by the time school years have been wrapping up at the end of May, only about just under half of school districts in America were actually delivering what I would call online instruction, meaning there was live online instruction and they were teaching new material. So just under half of the schools in America ever got to that point, and that’s by the end of May, so like I said, basically by the end of the school year.
And then even if you were part of a school district that did manage to get real online learning off the ground before the end of the school year, it’s not for every kid. There’s a reason that brick and mortal schools remain quite popular in the United States. There are students who benefit from online learning. And there are some great charter school networks that entirely work virtually. But it doesn’t work for every kid, just like any method of instruction. And so there’s been a lot of frustration I think with the uncertainty, with the way that online instruction has been delivered, with the lack of what we might call low tech option, AKA, pencil and paper. And then I think there’s some frustration with the curriculum itself. I mean, this is an opportunity for a lot of parents that they haven’t actually had in the past to really take a look at what and how their kids are learning.
And a lot of parents are finding that they’re not particularly thrilled with what and how their kids are learning, whether that’s the pace of instruction, whether their kids are behind or ahead of the pace of instruction, whether the kids are just bored. They might just see how boring some of these workshops and assignments actually are. Or they might be a little astounded at the way that curriculum has really shifted since perhaps they were in school, especially on sensitive and cultural issues like American history, or human sexuality, or for example, now [inaudible 00:06:32] climate change. So a lot of parents are taking their first look at that, and some of them are not thrilled with what they’re seeing.
And there’s been a push by the public education system for a long time to exclude parents being involved in the curriculum and what their children are learning. It’s this mentality of send your children to us and we’ll parent them, we’ll take care of them, everything, as you said, from sex education to what they should view about the climate and climate change. So do you find that this is presenting an opportunity to change the way parents think about educating their children? You mentioned some examples there. But do you think there are enough parents out there who are saying, “First of all, I didn’t realize this was going on. And second of all, we do have options, and I didn’t realize we had options before”?
Well, it’s still too early to say what the long-term impact of this moment will be. There are some poll numbers that show that 40% of parents are more likely to homeschool after this because they’ve kind of seen how to homeschool. And it hasn’t gone perfectly, but actually, plenty of parents are choosing to formally homeschool. And I’d actually like to talk to our listeners about that option. Even if you don’t see yourself homeschooling long-term and after things get back to normal and schools fully reopen, the fact is that a lot of schools are not going to normally reopen this fall. There will be various public health changes that are put into place. There might be alternate school days. There might be various onerous restrictions. Up to a third of teachers are actually high risk for COVID-19, so there might be a lot of teachers not returning to the classroom in the fall, so school is not going to look quite normal in most places in the fall.
And so, a lot of parents, between the failures of online learning and school not really looking normal in the fall might be interested in continuing to homeschool, but without the worksheets and the Zoom classes. It might be in fact easier and more edifying to assign book reports to your child for the first six months of the school year, for example. And that is absolutely a right in all 50 states. And actually, I want to take this moment to assure parents that despite some of the gloom and doom they’re hearing from some of the education researchers and from media, the fact is that your kids are learning during this time. The fact that they’re not learning in the same way, or the same exact curriculum, or way, or sort of milestones that they would be hitting in school. This may very well be the period that your kid looks back on where he or she learned the most about current events, about this historical moment in which we find ourselves, more about what their parents do for a living, more practical household skills like how to cook.
These are not valueless skills just because they are not on the next standardized test. And so I just want to assure parents. I think a lot of them are frustrated and worried, rightly, about their children’s educational future. But this is not going to be a lost semester. They are learning something, even if that thing is not exactly what the school systems wants them to learn. But yes, you do have options starting with pulling your kid formally out of the school system and continuing homeschool at your own direction as opposed to the school district or the teacher’s direction. And then in many states, depending on where you live, there are school choice options.
So, there are virtual charter schools. They are much more prepared for this moment, obviously, just because this is how they normally deliver instruction. So their teachers are trained in delivering instruction online. Their entire model of instruction is based around a virtual classroom, and so they’re just more prepared. This is no knock on the public schools, actually, but they’re just much more prepared by virtue of their pre-COVID business model for this moment. Unfortunately, some states are actually at the behest of teachers’ unions actually preventing additional students from signing up for virtual options, even if those options are already in existence in those states. We saw some of that in Pennsylvania, for example. I mean, that’s just abominable. Right? At this point, everybody needs grace and flexibility. And nobody should be cutting off options for parents during this time when we’re all scrambling to try to make things work in a very unusual environment.
But in terms of the longer list of options, one program that has I think really stood out among the states in this time is education savings accounts, which are programs that are currently in operation in six states, and most particularly in Arizona and Florida, where the biggest programs are. And parents there actually receive, even prior to this crisis, they receive portion of the state’s funds, essentially on a debit card. And they’re able to use it for any educational service.
And especially as we go to sort of a cautious reopening, in a lot of states, those programs are going to be invaluable to parents because if the regular school is not sort of on full reopen because it’s dense and there are a lot of kids, and as I said, a third of teachers are high risk, with an ESA, parents can actually bring tutors into their home to tutor their kids one on one. They can pay for instructional materials. They can pay for all kinds additional learning therapy if their child has special needs. So those are really the most flexible ways to conduct education. And we’re find that, that flexibility is especially valued during this time, and for good reason.
And I want to let our listeners know that if they’re interested in the policy focus, of course, they can find out on iwf.org. It is called The Impact of COVID-19 On Our Education System. Inez did author that, so she has a lot more valuable information on that. And I want to pick up on something you said, Inez. You talked about these education savings accounts. You’re talking about states, if I’m understanding correctly, who already had this in place. We know that we’re going to be reaching budget issues, as we already are, in every area of American life. But that’s going to impact the education system as well. Do you find that states are trying to help parents out who needed to take on the education of their children? Are states trying to implement education savings account, even if they’re thought of as being temporary during this time?
Well, it’s going to be a battle, and it’s too early to say. They really ought to because it’s a win-win for everybody. Almost all school choice programs and almost all the studies that have been done on this issue show that school choice programs actually provide better results in terms of both academic and importantly, life outcomes. For example, the [inaudible 00:13:50] program in Milwaukee actually dropped felony convictions in their students as young adults, as compared to the public school system, actually dropped felony convictions among their graduates by 93%. Right? So there are later life outcomes that are more important than test results. But still, the vast majority of studies show an increase in math and reading test results in school choice programs.
But importantly, for this upcoming budget crunch, every school choice program actually educates children at a fraction of the cost, the overall per pupil cost in the state. So many of them are a third of half the cost. And that’s largely because we have this underlying mal assumption, I think, in our politics and that’s that education is underfunded in this country. In reality, the United States is actually somewhere in the second, third, or fourth place in terms of the PISA countries, that’s Europe, us, and certain Asian, South Asian countries. We are near the top in terms of per pupil spending. We spend more than virtually any other country educating our young people. And that number itself is much higher than most people think it is. So the average per pupil expenditure in the United States is getting close to $17,000 a year. That’s more than the tuition of the average private school.
So, it is not the case that the education system is underfunded. Now parents and citizens might come back to me and say, “But my teacher just had to buy chalk. What do you mean we’re not underfunded?” Right? That’s probably an old example. My teacher had to buy the iPad. Right?
But it’s true that there are shortages at the classroom level, but that’s because money is not well allocated within the public education system. So if you take a look, there’s an amazing report doing by Ed Choice and economist, Ben Scafidi, who looks into where all the money has gone. And it turns out it’s gone into a bureaucratic administrative staffing boom for the last 30 years. So we’ve seen bureaucrats essentially, and compliance officers, and generally non teaching staff explode over the past 50 years by more than 700%. And at the same time, teachers, the number of teachers has doubled. And that’s because we are generally driving down class sizes. So parents do like the fact that we’ve increased the number of teachers, but we’ve only increased the number of teachers twofold. We’ve increased the number of bureaucrats sevenfold, to the point where they’re breaking in most bureaucrats, they’re the same in most districts. Sorry. There are the same number of teachers and bureaucrats. And that’s enormously expensive.
And the of course, there is the pensions, both of teachers but also of those many more bureaucratic staff, so that’s a large part of what is soaking up those funds. In fact, in some places like Illinois, only 11 cents of every new education dollar that’s added to the budget actually ends up going to anything that is actually used in the classroom, including teacher salaries. So these are poor priorities. And now that we’re all looking at a budget crunch, we should be scrutinizing the school districts for the choices they make during this budget crunch. And one of those choices should be, if they have to tighten their belts, like everybody in America is going to have to, they should be looking to get rid of administrative officers, not teachers and not things that go directly into the classroom. It’s been a nice boom time for them for the last 30 years.
It’s absolutely false that education funding, by the way, has dropped over the past decade. Education funding is about twice as much per pupil in real adjusted dollars as it was three decades ago. So they have had a nice long run. Unfortunately, that run is coming to an end, and they’re going to have to make tough choices. And they should make them in a smart way without threatening to fire teachers just to get the public angry, which has happened in the past. But yes, school choice will be a win-win during those budget crunches because they will get some of the kids educated at a fraction of the cost. Those children will have greater opportunities according to all of the social science research that we can find.
And so really, you would think that in sort of an apolitical world, states would be rushing to pass school choice programs. But unfortunately, we haven’t seen that yet. And that’s largely because of political considerations. Schools and teachers’ unions are worried that they will lose students permanently going forward, and not just to homeschooling, which I think is why you see attacks launched, ludicrous attacks, without any basis in social science or in research, launched against homeschooling at this time. Schools are worried that each student, remember, it costs them at average of $17,000 every time one student decides to stay home, and one family decides to keep their student as a home schooler. And the same thing happens when they lose students to school choice programs.
And so, it would be a win for the state legislature in terms of budgeting. It would be a win for parents in terms of options and flexibility. But there are political considerations from the school districts and from the teachers’ unions.
And one final question for you. And this is because you were talking about bloated budgets. I want to just turn very quickly to higher education. There’s a lot of transition that’s going on when it comes to colleges and universities, who we know the cost to attend has gone up dramatically, far past inflation, for students to attend college and university. So are you seeing, and these are the reports that we’re hearing, that a lot of people are choosing to forego college this year, especially since the on campus experience may not be there?
I am hoping that one silver lining of this crisis will be an earthquake in the way that with fund university and the percentage of people who go through the university system. The university system essentially made a promise a long time ago to the taxpayer. It said essentially, “Fund the loans to attend our institutions. And if you do that, we will do two things. We will graduate students who are more likely to go on and become leaders in their communities, start small businesses, invent new things, create companies. We will up the GDP.” So that’s one promise. The second promise is we’re going to create wiser citizens, so more people we put through university who get a bachelor’s degree, they will be wiser. They’ll be smarter. They’ll be better informed. And they’ll be better citizens.
Well, the latter of those two goals is laughable. If you look at any of the civics numbers today, it’s not just that college students are not learning about our American government system, it’s that they’re actively being taught to hate it. And that burden falls on K12 as well, and I don’t want to leave them out of this analysis. But the fact is that the universities exist on the lifeblood of taxpayer backed student loans. And I’ve long advocated that we need to eliminate that taxpayer backing and return some semblance of limits to this market because that’s one of the major reasons we see costs skyrocketing well above inflation, is because those loans are not being made on the basis like a bank would make them. Right?
A private bank would look at the return, the possible return. The federal government doesn’t do that. Right? The federal government just writes a blank check and says, “Here. Go anywhere. Take any program. We don’t care,” because they don’t care about the return on investment. And that’s produced an enormous number of valueless degrees and a huge number of people who are struggling with enormous debt way out of sync with the economic bump they got from getting a degree. In fact, we expect, pre COVID, we expected that 45% of those loans would be in default by 2023. That number has probably only gone up during this time, which brings me to how COVID is going to impact the university system.
If even 10% of students decide to take a gap year this year, they decide not to enroll in the university system, we will see universities close unless they are bailed out by the taxpayer. Now they’ve only gotten one bailout so far. They got $13.5 billion in the CARES Act. And that’s that whole brouhaha, if anyone remembers that Harvard took $9 million, even though they have billions in their endowment fund. Now Harvard’s not going to go under anytime soon. As I mentioned, they have that giant endowment. And they have a very, very good reputation in terms of for employers, so that they’re graduates. They don’t have a good reputation, I don’t think, anymore in terms of civics or contributing to the general welfare of the country. But they do have a high reputation with employers. And they’re not likely to go under anytime soon.
But we have many, many more colleges and universities, over 400 actually, many more than any other Western country. And some of those colleges and universities are not granting degrees that are of any value to the students who are attending them. And I do think that you’ll see, absent another bailout, which we should absolutely oppose, you’ll see some of these universities close their doors. And I think that’s right. This is a sector that is out sized and bloated because of the investment of the taxpayer. And they’ve simply not shown in recent years that their worthy of that investment from the taxpayer.
And like you said, even though there are educational hurdles right now, there could be a lot of silver linings in all of this, and including in higher education, making sure that first of all, college costs what it ought to, and that it’s not being inflated due to government involvement. And I think it’s helping young people rethink the type of degrees that they want, focusing on careers more than degrees and what can help the in their career. Could be a lot of silver linings, and we’ll let people know once again. If they want more information on the policy focus, go to iwf.org. It is called The Impact of COVID-19 On Our Education System. Inez, thank you so much for joining She Thinks Today.
Thanks for having me, Beverly.
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