Audrey Goodson Kingo, the editor-in chief of Working Mother, recently dropped some truth bombs on Twitter. “Plenty of publications have done great work on the trials and travails of working moms during the pandemic—but I kept noticing one weird thing: They would only give a passing mention of closed schools.”
Ms. Kingo noted school closures have resulted in a massive drop in labor force participation for moms—especially lower income moms. She’s worried about the long-term ramifications on women’s lifetime earnings and career advancement.
While Ms. Kingo diagnosed the problem (“WE KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES AND WE KNOW THE CAUSE. IT’S THE SCHOOLS.”), she didn’t reach for the ultimate solution: increased parental choice in education.
The reality is that individual parents have very little say in school district decisions. This stems from the government’s near monopoly on K-12 education. People wouldn’t accept this in other areas of life—not even other types of education like pre-school or college. This monopoly means unions and district bureaucrats wield more power than parents or individual teachers.
This imbalance of influence has left millions of students unable to attend school this year. By all accounts, school closures are hitting lower-income and minority families the hardest. Educational achievement gaps are expected to widen significantly in the wake of COVID. And, as Ms. Kingo pointed out, closures have been particularly hard on working mothers.
In sharp contrast, most private schools have remained open this year, even in urban areas where district schools have often remained closed. Unlike public schools, private schools must satisfy the families paying tuition so they don’t leave and take their dollars with them. As a result, many private schools have seen increased enrollment this year.
Ms. Kingo says she’s “been vastly, overwhelmingly disappointed by the silence from the usual progressive voices on this topic.” I haven’t been surprised by the silence. Progressives haven’t been “progressive” on education for many years. The movement has gotten very cozy with teachers’ unions and seemingly forgotten that doing what’s best for kids—not the system—should be the focus of education. Let’s face it, there’s nothing “progressive” about assigning children to schools based on their zip codes rather than what works best for them.
Conservatives are generally baffled by the lack of support for parental choice options among progressives. When it comes to education, one size didn’t fit all before the pandemic, and that’s even truer now. While some families prefer a fully remote or hybrid option, many want—or need—a full-time, in-person option.
More affluent families have always had options—they can afford private schools or tutors as needed. Indeed, nothing illustrates the need for equity through school choice options more than the reality that the vast majority of private schools started this past fall with in-person instruction, while more than half of public school students did not have access to the same option.
Most families have no options other than the local district school regardless of whether it works for their kids. For example, 80% of children in my home state of Pennsylvania attend their local district school, but polling last February found only 40% of parents would choose that if cost wasn’t a concern. Why don’t progressives—who champion equity and fairness—support helping parents access other educational options for their children?
Schools’ COVID responses have awakened many parents to the realization that their children often aren’t the priority in the current system. If money followed students instead of making students follow the money, the needs of children and families would be prioritized.
Lawmakers are paying attention. Legislation to expand parental choice—through programs like education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships—has been introduced in at least 30 states this year. West Virginia and Kentucky—“Red for Ed” hot spots a few years ago—approved education savings accounts in the past month. These programs will equip parents to provide the best education possible for their children and force government schools to be more student-focused.
After years of hearing that public schools are underfunded, parents are often surprised to learn that public schools in the U.S. spend around $15,000 per student on average, without factoring in the incredible cash infusions granted by COVID relief packages. In Pennsylvania, it’s $18,000. Meanwhile, average private school tuition is only around $11,000. Clearly, if even a portion of funding followed students, more children would be able to obtain a quality education. With more flexible funding, new options would become available; teachers in Florida, for example, have started their own schools thanks to the state’s school choice programs.
It’s understandable that Ms. Kingo and other parents are currently focused on school closures. Their children miss school, and many hate the remote options offered by districts. Plus, it’s hard to work from home while helping your children with their remote schooling. And parents who work outside the home may have no childcare available with schools closed.
But even when schools fully re-open, the root problem will remain: most families will still be at the mercy of the system. That’s why parental choice programs are an essential aspect of any long-term solution. By funding students instead of school systems, we can return the focus of education to its proper place: the children. Only then will we ensure the needs of families and children are prioritized.
Colleen Hroncich is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation.