What Happens When They Don’t?

States have finally started to release guidance to school districts for the “safe” reopening of buildings for in-person instruction. My state’s Return to School Roadmap takes a phased approach, with each phase providing guidelines that are either “required,” “strongly recommended” or “recommended.” In Phase 4, some of the requirements are:

“Facial coverings must be worn in classrooms by all students grades 6-12 ” and that “Facial coverings must always be worn by staff except for meals.”

Schools “must cooperate with the local public health department regarding implementing protocols for screening students and staff.”

Schools are also required to “provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors (including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for safe use by staff and students, paper towels, tissues, and signs reinforcing proper handwashing techniques).”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ letter advocating the reopening of in-person learning provides similarly authoritative guidance. It says that,

Bus drivers “should be a minimum of 6 feet from students; drivers must wear face coverings; consider physical barriers for drivers (eg, plexiglass).”

“Surfaces that are used frequently, such a drinking fountains, door handles, sinks and faucet handles, etc, should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily and as often as possible.”

“Children should wear face coverings when harms (eg, increasing hand-mouth/nose contact) do not outweigh benefits (potential COVID-19 risk reduction).”

I’ve got few reservations about the recommendations and I don’t envy any leaders trying to figure out how to make face-to-face instruction work in the middle of a pandemic, but neither Michigan’s Roadmap nor the AAP’s letter say anything about enforcement.

They’ve written a rulebook and left out the part where it explains what happens when the rules are broken.

No matter what states “require” or what plans districts formulate in the next month, it’s all useless if one question doesn’t get answered and answered definitively:

What happens when they don’t?

What happens when students don’t wear their masks? What happens when I, as the teacher, tells Mark to put on his mask and he tells me no? What then?

That’s not rhetorical. What then?

What happens when parents walk their children to their classrooms each morning even though school policy forbids non-employee adult access to the building? What happens when after I politely remind them of the policy they return the next day? What happens when they tell me that as taxpayers they have the right to walk their five-year-old to the classroom each morning? What do I do about that?

What happens when a sick kid is sent to school and parents refuse to pick them up because they can’t leave work without risking their job? It’s been made abundantly clear that schools are child care providers that produce the oil that lubricates the engine of the American economy. So what happens when Mom says she’ll get fired if she has to miss work to watch over her coughing child? What does the student do with that student and about that parent?

What is a bus driver to do with a student who starts violently coughing five minutes after she’s boarded? There may be no one at home to leave her with, but keeping her on the bus risks infecting others, including the driver himself. So what’s the policy? What does that bus driver, at that moment in time, do?

What happens when custodians don’t clean as often as they’re supposed to?

What happens when the district doesn’t provide what it’s”required” to?

Where does an employee report such grievances? How does a teacher complain without making herself vulnerable to staffing reductions which many districts will still be looking to make?

It’s as if those who’ve designed the plans are deluded by the fanciful dream that everyone will simply abide. They seem to not understand what every teacher in the country who will enter their classrooms knows with the same certitude that the President will say something stupid today. Teachers will be confronted with defiance because they have always been confronted with defiance. It’s not a matter of if students and parents will ignore or willfully defy the rules; it’s only a matter of how quickly and how often they will.

And if teachers required further assurance of such inevitabilities, they need look no further than their own social media accounts. Twitter provides daily examples of people flouting even the mildest mitigation efforts. Young people congregating at parties, hysterically intransigent Karens shouting about their “right” to not wear masks, toxically masculine Trump-loving bros slandering mask-wearers as unthinking sheep. All of them will be sending their kids to school. Judging by your Facebook, is there any doubt that some of these students, having marinated in the stew of their parents’ opinions for six months, are going to manifest those beliefs when they board buses and stomp through schoolhouse doors?

Teachers are being told that it’s critically important for students and teachers to return to in-person education. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance argues that academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech/mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity are all harmed by further time away from school. They claim that the interruption of school services results in social isolation and leaves kids more vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicide. According to these pediatricians, school reopenings are literally a matter of life and death.

The opening of schools is therefore so important we are willing to impose and accept a number of aggravations to make it possible, and, we hope, safe.

If it is indeed so crucial that students return to school, then it’s equally crucial that funding is provided to open in the safest ways possible. And if new rules are the only way we can ensure such safety, then the state must provide the authority to enforce those rules.

Teachers, bus drivers, principals, and school boards have to know what they should do when the rules, which, again, are meant to prevent death, are disregarded or brazenly contradicted.

Just how serious are we prepared to be with those who don’t comply?

It’s not enough for states to punt enforcement to districts. I’m a local control guy as much as the next teacher but states already insert themselves in areas of significant consequence. They don’t allow districts to create their own policies around standardized testing, special education services, or contact hours. Much of what my district does is at the behest of the state, with severe consequences for noncompliance.

When things are important enough – and it’s hard to argue that the reopening of schools during a pandemic doesn’t meet that standard – then the state steps in. Some things are non-negotiable. Limiting the spread of a deadly virus should be one of them.

If the state doesn’t provide direction, some districts will abdicate their responsibilities. Afraid of lawsuits, they’ll adopt overly timid approaches. Because so much of the pandemic has become political, districts will be reluctant to enter such divisive territory. Unwilling to offend those they serve, they’ll choose no side at all. Such dereliction will do what it always does: leaves teachers in the lurch.

Teachers will be expected, as they always are, to fill the void created by governments unwilling to pay for the very things they will require and too timorous to boldly stand behind their new rules. Or they’ll be betrayed by district leaders who cravenly elect to avoid conflict with vocal parents. Instead of clear direction and support, teachers will be told to have a growth mindset! To sacrifice because kids are worth it! To be a team player!

If teachers want the door handles disinfected, they’ll be the ones to do it.

If they want Kleenex, they’ll buy it or ask parents to.

If they want masks, they’ll head to DonorsChoose.

If they want to be protected from kids coughing in their faces they’ll … well, I don’t know what they’ll do, which is the whole point.

It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules.

It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules. Click To Tweet

We teachers have learned to expect little from the rest of society. In spite of our essentialness to the American economy, we don’t expect a raise this year. We don’t expect our employers to actually provide everything we need to do our jobs; we’re conditioned to fill those gaps with our own money. We’ve gotten used to taxpayers sniping about our “part-time” status. We’re not really surprised at the insincerity of those who at the start of the pandemic professed newfound gratitude for what we do each day. It doesn’t shock us that we’re being sent back to classrooms with little more than hope that everything will work out.

We’re not too sure about the new rules put in place for students’ return to school. But we might be willing to give them a shot if you could tell us what to do when they’re not followed.

What Teachers Are Worth

My childhood ended on the afternoon I tried to sell a Tony Fernandez rookie card. Dad had driven me to the next town over because I was hoping to complete a set of 1985 Topps baseball cards. I was six short, and in those pre-Internet days, the only way to get your hands on missing singles was to trade for them or buy them. I was going to buy mine and Dad, to his credit, had elected to not intervene. This was my ballgame.

I had a stack of cards to sell, the idea being I’d make five or six bucks unloading a pile of unwanted duplicates and then turn around and buy the ones I needed with the cash. I’d done the math. Any card collector of the era either had Beckett Baseball Card Monthly prices memorized or carried around the most recent volume. Beckett said my Tony Fernandez was worth 50 cents. So I started by offering him up.

The owner of the store, a gruff middle-aged fellow with a bushy mustache who stood opposite me behind a display case of Mantles, Koufaxes, and a Tom Brunanski I coveted, peered down at the rangy Blue Jays shortstop. Then he dismissed him, sliding the card to the side and considering the next one, which he also rejected.

“I’ll give you a dollar for the lot,” he told me, which made no sense to ten-year-old me. Beckett said that Tony Fernandez was worth two quarters by himself!

Back in the car on the ride home, Dad explained to his crestfallen, teary-eyed son how the world of baseball cards (and everything else) really worked.

“It doesn’t matter what the magazine says the card is worth,” he explained. “Something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.”

Many people have opined on what teachers are worth. Two of the most determined are Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at AEI, and Jason Richwine, a public policy analyst in Washington, D.C. Together, they have repeatedly argued that teachers are overcompensated, penning reports and articles with titles like:

No, Teachers Are Not Underpaid

Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid

The ‘Underpaid Teachers’ Myth

The Truth About Teacher Pay

Average Public School Teacher Is Paid Too Much

They make many arguments, some of them compelling, but the main one is that teachers don’t have skills that society values and are therefore overpaid. If they were subjected to the laws of supply and demand instead of protected by government and their unions, they’d earn much less. Here they are in their own words:

“The average teacher working in a public school today receives total compensation roughly 52 percent higher than what he or she would receive in private-sector employment.”

“Prospective teachers are predominantly drawn from the bottom third of their college graduating class. Compared with those of college graduates with similar skills, teachers’ average annual salaries of around $55,000 are about right. It is generous fringe benefits that push total teacher compensation far ahead of private-sector levels.”

“Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study. About half of teachers major in education, among the least-rigorous fields at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzes the skill requirements of different jobs, assigning each a pay grade based on the federal government’s General Schedule (GS). At the lowest skill levels—a GS-6 on the federal scale—teachers earn salaries about 26 percent higher than similar white-collar workers.” 

“Contrary to myth, teachers are generally not foregoing higher salaries by staying in the classroom. Data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation show that teachers who change to non-teaching jobs take an average salary cut of about 3 percent.”

Ignoring the many problems with Biggs and Richwine’s methodology and analysis, which others have written about here, here, and here, the error which begets all others is the authors’ myopic focus on the relationship between compensation and skill.

That people are willing to pay a premium to those possessing certain skills is not in question. That these skills actuate supply and demand is similarly self-evident.

Because most people cannot safely perform open-heart surgery, patients will pay almost any amount to surgeons. Because my freedom is priceless, I’ll shell out hundreds of dollars an hour to a lawyer for her specialized knowledge of the law and legal procedures. Companies will pay high salaries to software developers and engineers because demand outpaces supply.

By this standard, the one Biggs and Richwine fixate on, teachers do in fact appear overpaid.

But as my Tony Fernandez baseball card experience taught me, what something is worth depends on what someone else will pay for it. And people do not only pay for skill.

My neighbor is retired and very active. He rides a bike every day and even goes on cross-country cycling trips. But he doesn’t mow his own lawn. For that, he pays a local teenager $25 for a job that takes about 30 minutes.

I have a friend who decided to remove the wallpaper from her house. She did half of one room and then decided to pay thousands of dollars to have a company come in and finish the job.

Roofing, while back-breaking, is not especially difficult. It does not require a college degree or hours of training. But most people overpay to have someone else reshingle their house.

People pay to have their groceries delivered, their cars washed, and their toenails painted.

People will pay for services they can’t do themselves, but they will also pay for services they are unwilling to do themselves, regardless of the skill needed to do them.

And they will pay a lot.

Consider the cost of child care. Child care, of which most parents expect little more than their kid be returned safely to them at the end of each day, is prohibitively expensive for many families, despite the “low skill” of providers. Cost varies significantly by state, but the average for the United States is about $10,000 per year.

Or how about babysitting? Certainly, nobody needs a babysitter. Babysitters do not have skills prized in the marketplace. They’re usually teenage girls looking for a few extra bucks. But what are you willing to pay such a skills-deficient laborer so you can have a night out? 10 bucks an hour? 20? According to UrbanSitter’s survey of 28,000 families, the average babysitting rate is $16.75 for one child and $19.26 for two.

To put that in perspective, a teacher with 25 students in her room, who, you might need reminding, is expected to both watch over kids and teach them stuff, would earn almost a quarter-million dollars a year, and that’s if she were only paid $10 an hour (180 days x 5 hours/day (I rounded down, taking out lunch, etc.) x 25 students x $10/hour = $225,000). That’s about $9,000 per student per year.

The market, it seems, has spoken. And it values child care, low-skill or not.

But of course school isn’t just about supervision. Education also has value. And again, when exposed to market forces, it has proved expensive.

Private tutors cost anywhere from $25 to $80 an hour.

The average cost of an elementary private school is about $10,000, which, again, in a class of 25 students comes out to a quarter of a million bucks. Not all of that money goes to the teacher — private schools have administrators and overhead, too — but in the mind of the parent who is paying the bill, they are trading $10,000 for the service provided by the school, most of which is performed by the teacher.

The cost of college also proves how much value parents place on education. Even with states kicking in major taxpayer dollars, the average yearly tuition at an in-state public university costs families — you guessed it — about $10,000. Those arguing teachers would be paid less if they were subject to the merciless forces of capitalism should have to explain why the cost of attending a private college in the United States is more than $36,000 annually, with 120 schools charging over $50,000 last year.

A pet argument among the public-school-teachers-are-overpaid crowd is that private school teachers, who basically do the same job, make far less money. Because private schools are at the mercy of the market, so the argument goes, their salaries are true reflections of what all teachers are worth. But private school teachers aren’t paid less because parents don’t value their work. The fact they’re willing to pay ten grand a year proves that. They’re paid less for the same reason child care workers are paid poorly: low adult to child ratios.

Private schools average a 12:1 student to teacher ratio, compared to 16:1 in public schools. States restrict the number of children a licensed child-care provider can supervise, meaning all that money parents pay gets divvied up among a whole lot of adults, lowering the pay for each of them. If public schools followed suit, their teachers would indeed be paid less. But you’d need a bunch more of them and costs would likely rise as increased turnover would lead to higher training expenses, so taxpayers wouldn’t really gain anything.

Watch: Why Does Child Care Cost So Much Yet Providers Make So Little? | Child Care Aware of America

Those who believe public school teachers are overpaid like to blame the government and teachers unions. They believe that if teachers had to compete in the marketplace like other workers, their pay would reflect what they’re actually worth.

But evidence suggests the opposite.

Parents are willing to pay a premium for others to watch their kids. They’re willing to pay a lot for their kids to receive an education. Government’s involvement does not inflate teachers’ salaries. If anything, it depresses them. In a totally free market, the cost of elementary education would look a lot like the cost of child-care. Or college. Or even babysitting.

To slightly rephrase the lesson on capitalism my ten-year-old self received from my dad:

It doesn’t matter what economists, public policy analysts, and “resident scholars” say teachers are worth. It matters what parents are willing to pay.

And unlike that stingy baseball card dealer who destroyed the innocence of my youth, they’re willing to pay quite a lot. It’s the generosity of taxpayers that prevents them from doing so.

“My Child Doesn’t Like to Read”

During the debate over Michigan’s third-grade reading law, I read this article that contained this quote from a mom: “My son doesn’t like to read. It’s hard to force him, but he does well in every other subject, so they should not be forced to stay back.”

And I agree that he should not be held back.

But how in the world have we gotten to the place where a mom can admit to a reporter, on the record, that her kid isn’t a very good reader because he doesn’t like it and it’s hard to make him?

I mean, I get it. I don’t like forcing my daughter to do things she doesn’t like, either. And sometimes, I don’t because some of the things I think are important aren’t actually that important. They’re just a reflection of my values.

But there are some things that are non-negotiable because they’re just too important.

She has to go to bed at a certain time because sleep is inarguably, scientifically-proven to be extremely important. And even if science didn’t have anything to say on the matter, my own observations of my sleep-deprived child would quickly convince me of its necessity.

She has to take showers and brush her teeth because personal hygiene is both important for one’s health and because being in middle school is hard enough without going through it as the smelly kid.

She has to go to school if she’s not sick because it’s the law.

She doesn’t get to say no to these things. And if she does, I make her do them anyway, damn the resistance no matter its form.

Reading is one of these things.

Parents, pardon my bluntness, but society doesn’t expect a whole lot from you. We don’t really care if your kid goes to college; plenty of other kids will. We’d like it if your child grew up and found gainful employment because if he doesn’t some of our tax money will be spent on him instead of things we’d maybe rather have it spent on, but we also know that your unemployed son will likely be a greater hardship for you than for us, so even here, we’re fairly indifferent. We really don’t even care if you follow through on the personal hygiene stuff. Yes, it offends our sensibilities to stand next to your smelly offspring on the subway and we may cringe a bit at his toothless smile, but these are temporary inconveniences and, for the most part, we can avoid them.

Here is what we do want: We don’t want your kid to be a blithering idiot. Idiots are problematic. They generally suck at their jobs, which, if I’m a customer, is going to make my day worse. They do stupid things that impact other people, like take out zero-interest loans on homes they can’t afford which contribute to mass foreclosers and a total meltdown of the housing market. They commit crimes. They share fake news on Facebook. They vote for buffoons.

Idiocy affects everyone.

We want your child to grow up with some basic intelligence and knowledge of the world, and one of the easiest ways to gain these things is by reading.

Here is how important it is that your child read (source):

  • Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background. 
  • 16-year-olds who choose to read books for pleasure outside of school are more likely to secure managerial or professional jobs in later life. 
  • Regular readers for pleasure reported fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers, and stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching television or engaging with technology-intensive activities. 
  • Those who read for pleasure have higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with difficult situations. Reading for pleasure was also associated with better sleeping patterns.
  • Adults who read for just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction. 
  • Studies have found that reading for pleasure enhances empathy, understanding of the self, and the ability to understand one’s own and others’ identities.

Also, to the mom quoted at the beginning of this article, your son is not going to continue to do well in every other subject if he struggles to read. Here’s an example of a math question from the program I use with my third graders:

I know of very few children who love bathing. And yet no parent would simply accept that their kid will be forever filthy. Parents would never admit in an interview, “Well, my son doesn’t like to take baths, so we don’t make him do it.” They don’t excuse their child’s disgusting state by saying, “Yeah, he doesn’t like showers but you should see him build Lego sets.”

Reading is as important to your child’s brain as hygiene is to your child’s health.

Reading is as important to your child's brain as hygiene is to your child's health. Click To Tweet

One of the rationalizations parents of reluctant readers make is that if they force their child to read then they’ll destroy any chance that the kid will like reading in the future. They believe that by compelling reading, they’ll make it less likely that their child will fall in love with books. They take a hands-off approach in the hopes that their child will discover a love of reading on their own at some future date.

But we don’t do this with other important skills. We don’t believe that making children brush their teeth will result in so much hatred for the act that they will refuse to brush as adults.

I don’t buy the argument that forcing someone do to something means they will never learn to love that thing. One reason kids don’t like reading is that they aren’t good at it. It’s the same reason I don’t like doing burpees, performing car maintenance, or quilting.

But if you forced me to quilt for an hour every day, day after day, guess what will happen? I will get incrementally better at quilting to the point that someday, I won’t suck as much. I might, as I improve, realize that I no longer hate quilting. I might even choose to do it on my own.

This is literally the process of learning any new skill. First, you stink. Then, with some instruction, positive feedback, helpful criticism, and lots more practice, you get incrementally better. Then, with more of those things, you get better still. Eventually, you get pretty decent and maybe even good. Somewhere along the way, you learn to enjoy this thing. If you do, you choose to do it more on your own time and you get even better.

When I was a kid I hated going to bed. Then, when I got to my teenage years, it was pretty much my favorite thing to do. Still is.

When I was a kid I hated taking baths. Now? I choose to take a shower every day. Sometimes, I take two! Sometimes in the winter, I’ll take a shower just to warm up. I also like hot tubs.

When I was a kid, I hated cleaning my room. Today? Okay, I still hate cleaning my room. No rule is without exception and there’s no guarantee that your kid will ever love to read. But at least they will know how!

I look forward to the day when parents will be as ashamed to utter the words, “My son doesn’t like to read” as they would be to say, “My son doesn’t like to use the toilet.”

Some things are unacceptable. Not making your kid read outside of school is one of them.

Book Review: The Electric War

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Mike Winchell’s book, The Electric War, tells the thrilling story of the battle over which current – alternating or direct – would send America charging into the 20th century. The narrative focuses on how three luminaries of the time — Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse — vied for dominance in the emerging field of electricity, and reveals how their distinct personalities contributed to their successes, failures, and legacies.

The Electric War is written for young adults but serves as a suitable primer on the War of the Currents for readers of all ages. While an exhaustive account of the topic could easily warrant hundreds of pages, Winchell pulls off an impressive feat with a comprehensive review that not only addresses all of the key events but also provides readers with incisive observations of the characters of three great men, and all in just 233 pages.

Writing with narrative flair, Winchell first introduces us to a young Thomas Edison. Young readers will likely delight in reading about exploits which have become part of the inventor’s lore. The good stuff is all here: Edison’s experimenting with chemicals on his friends, his industrious peddling of sundries to neighbors, his short, inauspicious exposure to public schooling, his raging curiosity, and, in a deft bit of foreshadowing, the curse of an obdurate self-assurance that all too often accompanies the stratospheric success of self-made men.

We next meet the enigmatic Tesla, where we realize, as is so often the case with history, just how tenuous our world’s narrative is. It’s hard to deny the hand of destiny when you learn that weather saved colonial soldiers from certain defeat in the American Revolution, or that an accidental discovery led to penicillin, or that Nikola Tesla, the man whose genius would lead to the ubiquitous electricity we enjoy today, might have been lost to history as a member of the clergy, had he not secured a promise from his father to study electricity should he recover from a serious bout with cholera.

Finally, Winchell introduces us to the formidable George Westinghouse, a man whose role in this story is two-fold. Without Westinghouse, Tesla’s alternating current would have stood no chance against Edison’s direct current. And without Westinghouse, the reader would lack a necessary foil to Edison’s underhanded, cutthroat business methods.

Like all good narrative nonfiction, The Electric War includes the relevant facts, but we keep reading for the characters. In Edison we have the villain, ruthless in business, demanding with his employees, boastful and manipulative with the press, and stubbornly refusing to admit error. Tesla is the naive genius, a sympathetic character whose idealism is continually exploited by selfish men while he lives out his life alone and ultimately in poverty. And Westinghouse is the hero, a man of unflinching moral character who doesn’t compromise his ethics when doing so could have been forgiven and who virtuously provides the world with not only a superior method of delivering electricity but also the five-day workweek.

The Electric War is a well-written, face-paced account of the race to light the world. With a structure bookended by the fascinating story of the first-ever execution by electric chair, readers seeking information about this time of ingenuity and entrepreneurship will not be disappointed. Winchell has delivered a compact yet thorough account of three titans of their age, and he’s done so while maintaining a narrative drive that zips readers through each chapter, not unlike a current through copper wire.

Rumors of Public Schools’ Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

These are scary times for those who support public schools. Legislators in most states are preparing the public for deep funding cuts. The federal government does not seem to be in a hurry to bail out states. The Secretary of Education continues her crusade to ram her personal affinity for private schools down everyone’s throats. There’s concern about just how many parents will feel comfortable sending their children back to brick-and-mortar schools. And on top of all of that, it’s likely that schools will be instituting changes to their operations, some of which will depress attendance and most of which will cost additional money that they will not have.

Enemies of public education smell blood, and they’re positively giddy about the prospects of a weakened public school system. Ryan McMaken, in an article titled “The School Closures Are a Big Threat to the Power of Public Schools,” tries to argue that emergency learning has exposed just how ineffectual and oversold our education system is. Based on the article’s comments, Ryan is hardly alone in his wishful thinking. McMaken starts by crediting COVID-19 for exposing the truth about school: It wasn’t actually “all that important after all.” His evidence?

“Yes, the schools have tried to keep up the ruse that students are all diligently doing their school work at home, but by late April it was already apparent that the old model of “doing public school” via internet isn’t working. In some places, class participation has collapsed by 60 percent, as students simply aren’t showing up for the virtual lessons.”

It’s unclear how that’s supposed to be damning to public schools. Schools have hardly covered up students’ low participation in virtual learning. Why would they? If students are getting just as much out of remote learning as they were out of traditional schooling, what incentive would the public have to return their kids to school instead of enrolling them virtual schools? It benefits public schools for distance learning to fail.

McMaken then defeats another one of this own arguments when he writes:

“Ironically, public schools have essentially ditched lower-income families almost completely even though school district bureaucrats have long based the political legitimacy of public schools on the idea that they are an essential resource for low-income students. So as long as the physical schools remain closed, this claim will become increasingly unconvincing.”

Public schooling hasn’t failed low-income families. Our society has. The fact that just 56% of households with incomes under $30,000 have broadband access isn’t the fault of schools; it’s the fault of capitalism. Schools are the one institution that at least attempts to level the playing field, but McMaken wants to illogically redirect blame away from policies he surely advocates toward schools.

But it’s the last sentence above that undermines McMaken’s argument. “As long as the physical schools remain closed…”. As long as physical schools remain closed, a lot of problems will persist. If McMaken is saying that remote learning stinks, he’ll find little disagreement from public school advocates. But to conflate what public schools have been forced to do with what they’ve always done is to make the exact opposite argument of the one you think you’re making.

McMaken seems to concede this, admitting that “Nonetheless, working-class and lower-income parents are likely to return their children to the schools when they open again.” So he’s then forced to consider how emergency learning has impacted middle-class parents’ perceptions of public schooling.

His main points here are that they have been previously happy to use schools as child-care providers and they enjoy extra-curricular offerings like music, sports, robotics, and the rest. If these extras are cut or curtailed, McMaken argues, middle-class parents might wonder what they’re paying for and they might take a closer look at academics, which they will find lacking.

“Even if schools open this fall, the reforms currently being pushed will ensure that schools continue to lack many of the amenities many have come to expect. If these reforms are adopted, students can forget about social events. They can expect shorter school days, and an ongoing role for online schooling. Team sports will be gone. Old notions of universal mandatory attendance and long days will seem increasingly quaint and old fashioned—or possibly even dangerous.

For many parents, this will just reinforce their growing suspicions that public schools just aren’t worth it anymore. Maybe they never were.”

It’s a curious argument because he seems to be saying that a new version of something that is less satisfying than a previous version confirms problems with the previous version. It’s like arguing Six Flags was always overrated and overpriced but waiting until they got rid of half their rides, closed the park three hours earlier, extended wait line times, and decided to no longer serve food to do so.

But McMaken’s biggest omission is the elephant in the room: the fact that our public education system is also America’s child-care system. This alone ensures its survival. Public schools are indispensable to most families for three reasons, none of which has anything to do with academics or extra-curricular offerings:

  1. Slow income growth combined with a socially constructed rat-race that makes it nearly impossible to maintain a middle-class lifestyle without both parents working, which means nearly all middle-class families need child-care.
  2. The prohibitive cost of child-care and the comparatively low cost of public schools.
  3. The fact that even those who don’t use public schools pay for them.

Schools, if they did nothing but provide a place for parents to send their kids while they went to work, would still be essential, which is why most people agree that our economy will never fully recover until they reopen.

It’s rarely recognized, and even more rarely acknowledged by fiscal hawks, many of whom rail against the taxes used to fund education, but public ed is an exceptional deal for parents. In my state of Michigan, the average annual child-care cost for 4 year-olds (data doesn’t exist for older kids because – that’s right – they go to school) is $8,890, or $741 per month, a figure that puts child-care out of reach for most low-wage workers and exerts enormous strain on middle-class family budgets, especially if they have more than one child.

To illustrate just how good of a deal taxpayer-subsidized child-care in the form of public schooling is for parents, Michigan’s K-12 budget for fiscal year 18-19 was $14.8 billion, not including local taxes (most of which are property taxes). It sounds like a lot of money, something enemies of public schools never fail to point out. But divide that figure by the 10 million adults living in Michigan and you get $1,480 per adult per year. That’s $123 per month. Add the $2,312 taxpayers with homes priced at the state median value pay each year in property taxes (only some of which goes to education), and you’re still only up to $316 a month, less than half of what they’d pay in child care costs if they’re only paying for one child.

Yes, funding is likely to be cut. Students might not be able to play football, or perform in the school play, or go to prom, or even see any more than half of their classmates for the next year. Traditional education, in whatever form it takes, won’t be what it was. Not all parents will send their children back to school.

But most will. Because to do anything else isn’t realistic or financially sensible.

Public schools have some problems. This coming year they’ll have more challenges than usual. But as long as our public system of education is also our child-care system, and as long as it continues to be a far more attractive deal than any other option, parents will continue to send their kids. Any prediction that public schools are knocking on death’s door is nothing more than wishful thinking by those who wish it were.