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.


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