With remote learning going on for almost a year in some parts of the U.S., and new CDC guidance that could leave kids at home until May if not longer, education reformers say the case for school choice has never been more powerful. Families of all backgrounds should have the money and the power to decide among traditional public schools, charters, and private and parochial options. Some states have already moved in that direction.
It is not just that the country’s parents are looking to get their children out of the house, and that our public schools (held hostage by teachers’ unions) don’t seem inclined to open anytime soon. We have also learned this year that parents even from the same neighborhoods and the same racial and socioeconomic groups want very different things from their children’s education, and there is no way a one-size-fits-all public school is going to be able to provide them.
It’s telling, certainly, that enrollment in public schools has suffered a record drop from last year, with as many as 6%, or 3 million students, currently not taking classes either remotely or in person. At the same time, private and parochial schools saw large surges in interest as many more of them opened their doors to in-person learning in September.
It is not only teachers who are reluctant to go back in person. From low-income urban neighborhoods to wealthy suburban districts, significant percentages of parents don’t feel that their children should be back in school yet.
Their reasons are varied. Many parents are distrustful that the schools are doing what they should to keep kids safe. It’s not unreasonable for parents whose kids attend schools with lead in the water and violence in the hallways to assume that administrators are in no position to guarantee proper hygiene and ventilation.
What about the suburban parents? Any risk is too much risk for some parents when it comes to their children. Helicopter parenting has become more feasible and more extreme during the lockdown. And since many well-off parents have been able to work from home and find someone else to supervise remote learning, they are content to continue in this vein until COVID-19 has been all but eliminated.
But these parents are up against what seems like a much larger number of families who see remote learning as unsustainable. From learning loss to mental health challenges, it is clear that Zoom classrooms are not working for most children—particularly younger ones.
In affluent suburbs like Brookline, Massachusetts, and Montclair, New Jersey, there have been full-scale battles among parents who were once thought to share similar interests. At school board meetings, some parents are demanding fully in-person school, others want to remain remote, and still others—not wanting to add risk—hope to continue with the hybrid model.
Around Westchester County, where I live, many parents were keeping their kids home from school not in order to protect them from COVID, but to ensure they wouldn’t be forced into weeks of quarantine if they were exposed to a classmate who had it. Some would continue to send their children to social events and sports practices while keeping them home from school. The priority was not on in-person learning but on ensuring that life outside of school went on as usual.
And speaking of sports, parents in many districts have also been demanding the return of athletics, even “high risk” ones, at schools that are either hybrid or remote. But if learning in a socially distanced classroom isn’t safe, how can we be playing basketball?
As one New Jersey athletics director noted, “What we’ve seen recently is sports have taken a priority over a lot of things in the country, which I think is a very dangerous statement for education…. If you’re remote only and playing sports, kids are able to see that schools are run by athletics. … It’s a terrible message to say, ‘No, don’t come to school, but, yes, come play sports.’”
If that’s true, it sounds as if athletics are what’s holding the support for public schools together. The message that in-person athletics are more important than academics reflects the view of many parents. In some districts, parents were even willing to make a tradeoff—keeping their kids remote in return for being allowed to play on sports teams.
If anything, the pandemic has emphasized that families want very different things from their children’s schools. And new models of education have popped up to serve them. From in-person learning pods to better options for online learning, even middle-class parents can tailor their children’s education to the topics that are important to them, the style of learning that is most productive for their children, and the level of academic rigor they think is appropriate.
Parents can even pick their children’s peers. As of September, more than half of parents were considering putting their children in a pod or had already done so. The most likely to do this were parents with incomes over $75,000 a year and with children in kindergarten through fourth grade.
Companies like SchoolHouse, for example, will match groups of four to eight students with certified teachers to form micro-schools. A five-day in-person school will cost approximately $18,840 per school year. Some of these pod companies ask you to form your own group while others will put you in touch with other interested families in your ZIP code.
Families who live next door to each other may find themselves attracted to radically different curriculums as well—with some looking for more traditional subjects and others embracing more progressive ideas. Even parents who seem demographically identical may land on opposite sides of all these issues.
Rather than fight school administrations, more parents will simply seek better options. And if we really care about educational inequities, we should ensure that lower-income families have the same choices.
No doubt this trend represents a loss to what was the common civic space of traditional public schools. But in a polarized country where parents want very different things out of their children’s education and everyone deserves the same opportunities, greater school choice is not only necessary. It’s inevitable.