How Covid-19 Helps Betsy DeVos And Threatens The Survival Of Public Education

Public education is often called the bedrock of American democracy and yet few Americans would disagree that it is currently in its worst shape in living memory. After two decades of becoming a standardized testing factory thanks to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race To The Top policies, now an American public school education suddenly means either going to school via videoconference calls from home or going to school wearing face coverings all day long while interacting with teachers through plexiglass. Let’s be clear about something: these are two low-grade options. Though the public school response to Covid-19 may make sense from a public health perspective, the measures being taken are dramatically reducing the quality of public education and therefore the opt-out movement — whose most famous figurehead is Betsy DeVos — is thriving like never before.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, is missing nearly 11,000 of its students since it started the school year. Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest, is down 16,000 students. Of 100 districts National Public Radio sampled in a recent survey, Kindergarten attendance is down 16%. This is all very good news for school choice and school privatization, but very bad news for public education and American democracy. 

The origins of American public school date back to 1642 when the colony of Massachusetts founded the first public school system “taking into consideration the great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor.” Concern about America’s social cohesion and democratic virtues underpinned primary and secondary school universalization in the first half of the 20th century and much of the movement-building around public school education today. Deborah Meier, educator and founder of the small schools movement, calls public education “a necessary and secure part of this American dream of steady progress” in her 1995 book The Power of Their Ideas and says that “schools embody the dreams we have for our children. All of them. These dreams must remain public property.”

However, the political movement that would develop in the wake of a series of reforms at the start of the new millennium was not operated or owned by the public. Instead, 2001’s No Child Left Behind gave way to a wave of school choice voucher and for-profit charter school programs which granted motivated parents the opportunity to opt-out of their designated public school and choose a different option for their children. Dramatized in 2010’s school privatization propaganda documentary, Waiting For Superman, parents of low-income students would devote emotional and political resources that they would otherwise dedicate to improving their public school to winning the lottery to get their kids into “high-performing” charter schools. Influenced by Milton Friedman’s philosophy of applying market-based principles to education, the school choice movement snowballed and charter school attendance in America grew from 0.4 million in the fall of 2000 to nearly 3.1 million in the fall of 2017, fattening the pockets of charter school operators and investors like DeVos that support education’s private sector.

Though championed by the last three American presidents and written about extensively by both well-known proponents like Terry Moe and critics like Diane Ravitch, school choice programs still serve a small fraction of the total American K12 student population. Despite major setbacks, American public schools still welcomed 90% of the K12 school-going population in the fall of 2019. 

Prior to Covid-19 closing down the public education system and most of the American economy in March of 2020, even America’s often-criticized urban public schools retained enough quality and value for affluent, well-educated parents to entrust them with their children. As Nikole Hannah-Jones explains in a 2016 New York Times piece, while other more affluent parents “wouldn’t take a chance” on their children’s education because they didn’t want their kid to be “an experiment,” ultimately Hannah-Jones found a public school option suitable for her child.

However, that was 2016 and unfortunately, today’s New York City Department of Education looks a lot different in the wake of Covid-19. After shutting down in-person school in mid-March, New York City schools were supposed to finally open at the beginning of September but have had two separate unexpected delays. Now, enrolled students have the option to either go in-person for “hybrid” learning or attend remotely via the computer. Those who go in-person have modified hours, are restricted by limited movement in the building, and must wear a face covering. 

The question we need to grapple with is: would Nikole Hannah-Jones choose to send her child to a New York City public school over another option in today’s environment? 

My hunch is “no” because a rational individual’s loyalty to the collective well-being of society only goes so far. If a parent can afford to stay home with their child or send their child to an in-person school where schedules aren’t haphazard and masks aren’t mandatory, why would they choose a virtual or restricted in-person experience at a public school? The gap between the quality of school choices has never been greater, and it is forcing more parents to opt-out of a system they never would have otherwise.

This mass exodus from the public school system is dangerous because it has implications for our already fragile and polarized democracy. If public schools are what keep our communities intact even when political and economic differences seem impossible to reconcile, what happens when material percentages of citizens leave the public school system for good? What happens when public school advocates decide against choices that benefit the collective because the public school system’s quality diminishes so much that a rational actor couldn’t act in any other way? What happens to America’s communities and democracy when a large portion of Americans build their own educational models outside of the public education system?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the silver lining of the pandemic is more innovation in education. However, the honest calculus of a total coronavirus-induced collapse of the American public education system is that Betsy DeVos and friends will multiply their billions of dollars while American democracy and public life will decline to a point of no-return.

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