One reason consistently put forward in the school reopening battles around the country as justifying continued closure is that the public system is simply too financially strapped to make the adjustments necessary for safe reopening. On the basis of that idea, the federal government will, if the relief package being negotiated now in Congress passes, allocate about four times its normal expenditures for public schools. But is it true that public schools are underfunded, or even that the additional expenses related to reopening in the age of coronavirus are swamping budgets?
False. Completely make believe.
In December, the CDC estimated that the costs of accommodating space, ventilation, staff, and other anti-COVID adjustments runs about $440 per student. The federal aid that has been and is likely, with this upcoming relief package, to be offered to public schools is about nine times that estimate.
But the real proof is in the pudding: only five percent of private schools across the country started all-virtual this fall. While many might think that private schools have more funds to deal with reopening costs, the reality is the opposite. Not only is average private school tuition substantially lower than average public school per-pupil funding (about $11,000 to public schools’ $14,000), they’ve received only a tiny fraction of the federal and state aid that has been available to public schools.
If it’s not more money, what accounts for the wide gap in the availability of in-person learning between private and public schools? Two important elements: the political power of teachers’ unions, and the fact that private school employees depend directly on parent satisfaction for their paychecks.
Many American families have been getting a crash course in the power of union lobbying for the past year. In some districts, unions have demanded that in-person instruction not return until 2022, long past when vaccines will be available to all teachers who want to take them, especially in the many states that have bumped teachers to the front of the vaccine line. Other transparently political union demands have little to do with public health at all, such as calls for defunding the police, Medicare for All, and closing off school choice options.
On the flip side, parents have been discovering just how little their dissatisfaction and the academic and social consequences they see in their kids mean to those who operate the school systems ostensibly run for those children’s benefit. Not only have concerns about mental health and issues with virtual learning been brushed aside, they’re often outright mocked or shamed as callousness towards teachers and administrators.
“More money” has been a convenient excuse for the failures of our education system even in better times. But even in the age of coronavirus, they’re self-serving and false. Those standing in the way of reopening schools are unions and districts, not “the science,” and definitely not lack of funds.