Quote of the Day:

Honestly acknowledging trade-offs is what makes for serious governing. 

–AEI’s James Pethokoukis in “The Terrible Tradeoff of Keeping Schools Closed”

Here is a popular recent slogan on signs at teacher protests against re-opening the nation’s schools:

“I can’t teach from the grave!”

As if that is not strong enough, sometimes protestors bring along a coffin.

It is hard to conduct a productive dialogue with somebody who says that if she or he is sent back to work, you will be killing them. I suspect that is one reason for the coast-to-coast vogue of this slogan: it shuts down rational discussion.

Some teachers undoubtedly will not be able to return to the classroom.

Nobody, least of all members of the Trump administration, wants to order teachers into a risky situation that result in their deaths. In addition to the abandonment of humane values, that is one sure way to dash any hopes for a recovery.

Instead of hysteria, why aren’t teachers finding out about their specific risks to take necessary actions so that school can commence? (Well, I think most readers of this blog can hazard a guess.)

Also to be considered is the long-term damage to students that will result from extended closures. A mature society, which we were a few months ago, would be able to evaluate this. Given the toll of the virus, it is not an easy discussion, but it should be had. As AEI’s James Pethokoukis writes:

Honestly acknowledging trade-offs is what makes for serious governing. A key difference between policy activists and policy analysts is that the former either severely minimize the existence of trade-offs or ignore them completely. Lower speed limits would save lives, but they would also waste more of our time and make it more expensive to ship goods around our continent-sized country. Sharply higher taxes might raise more revenue for government, but they could reduce incentives to work, save, and invest. Big budget deficits might juice the economy in the short run, but they could result in higher long-term interest rates. One commonality among “populist” governments is that they ignore economic trade-offs and govern as if such constraints do not exist. Financial crises are frequently the result.

The terrible physical toll of COVID-19 is immense and obvious: Nearly 160,000 American dead so far and an untold number of recovered victims with possible long-term health damage. Other costs are not so immediate. And that is what makes the debate around virtual schooling so difficult.

What is the cost of keeping kids out of school this year?

Keeping kids out of school this year would be a different sort of economic catastrophe, but one every bit as serious as the deep recession from which we are currently recovering. School is not just daycare for younger students so more of us can go to work. Nor is it just a “credentialing” mechanism for older students that allows future employers to find the best workers.

One of the strongest and most persistent findings of modern economics is that schooling really does something important to help kids become high-functioning adults, including as workers in an advanced, globalized economy. Those findings are seen to be as true today as when they were first identified in the 1950s. Indeed, a 2018 World Bank analysis shows the benefits increasing since 2000.

It is really not controversial: Missing school is tremendously harmful, harm that can be quantified in reduced future earnings. And it is not a small reduction. A new calculation by economist Michael Strain, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, finds keeping kids home for another semester after the spring shutdown represents a loss of over $30,000 per decade in future earnings for a typical worker who graduated high school but didn’t attend college. And if kids only get online schooling until September 2021, the losses for many would likely be even larger.

We have precedents to consider: the 1918 flu pandemic and the 1917 polio epidemic. Many local officials closed schools to deal with the health emergencies. The educational effects were long-lasting:  

A 2017 paper by economists Keith Meyers of the University of Arizona and Melissa Thomasson of Miami University found children ages 14 to 17 during the pandemic ended up with “less educational attainment in 1940 compared to their slightly older peers.”

But couldn’t these kids just catch up later, after a vaccine makes in-person schooling safe again? Theoretically, maybe, with enough funding and intensive tutoring. But consider the difficulties we already have helping disadvantaged kids combat the “summer slide” phenomenon where education attainment regresses over the long summer break versus wealthier kids who have greater education enrichment options.

The idea of catching up so many kids after such a long period of suboptimal learning would seem to suggest American has the sort of “state capacity” that it has so far failed to demonstrate in containing the coronavirus. It would be a massive effort.

Showing up with coffins and incendiary slogans makes it hard for us to raise the matter of school closures and economic recovery. How heartless! I suspect that making those who raise this perfectly valid concern look like monsters is by design.

But our economic future must be considered in the tradeoff category. Don’t miss Allison Schrager’s “Open the Schools or Kiss the Economy Good-bye” in the New York Post.

And guess who will be affected the most severely? Poor kids whose parents can’t afford remedies to the failure of the public schools. Isn’t that always the case?