The abysmal response of many public schools to the pandemic has bolstered support for school choice among parents and policy wonks alike. Indeed, according to at least one poll, support for school choice over the last year has spiked 10% among parents with children in public schools, from 67 to 77 percent.
Most of the pandemic-related arguments for school choice relate to school closures: Numerous school districts across the nation—particularly those in liberal metropolitan areas like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—generally have refused to provide in-person instruction, notwithstanding the fact that it was safe to do so. In many cases, these districts have been held captive by teachers unions who resist in-person instruction, even after teachers are vaccinated. As a result, students across the nation, and particularly students of color, have struggled for over a year with virtual learning.
It’s important to recognize, however, that the school choice argument isn’t entirely about reopening. A sizable minority of parents, many of whom are still scared to send their children to in-person school, would prefer that their children continue remote learning indefinitely. While this isn’t the choice that I would make for my children, I believe these parents should have the option to do so—just as parents who would have preferred that their children remain in-person throughout the pandemic should have had the option to do so.
Moreover, while virtual school has failed countless students, I recently was surprised to learn that many (though still a minority) of students have thrived with remote learning. A recent NPR segment interviewed the parents of one such student:
Bobby has ADHD and sometimes gets seizures. (NPR isn’t using last names to protect students’ privacy.) This means that the 11-year-old often needs to take breaks from class, whether it is because of a seizure or just because he wants to walk around the room to get some of his energy out. Even though he already had some accommodations when school was in-person, online learning makes it easier for him to accommodate his own needs.
These stories are consistent with my own experience. While most of my friends with school-age children despise virtual school, two have told me that their children have actually become much better students over the past year because, for various reasons, distance learning works better for them.
These stories underscore a fact that should have been obvious to start with: Education is not a one-size-fits-all product, and a quality education needs to be tailored to the needs of each student. I worry about what will happen to the students for whom remote education works better in a year or so, when presumably most public schools will no longer offer a remote option. How agonizing would it be as a parent to know that your child could succeed if only they were in a different environment—an environment that’s not an option unless you can afford to pay for a virtual private school on top of the mandated taxes to fund a public school that just doesn’t work for your child?
School choice would allow these students to remain in an environment that better suits their learning style, even after most public schools have stopped offering distance learning options. It would also improve the quality of virtual school options available to these students. Over the past year, teachers unions have not only resisted in-person education, but they have also frustrated efforts to improve distance learning by, among other things, preventing students from switching to superior virtual charter schools and watering down the requirements for distance learning.
An overwhelming majority of parents support school choice, yet the United States lags behind many other countries in adopting policies that support it. The experiences families and students have had during the pandemic have shown that it’s beyond time our nation caught up.