We need to figure out a way to open public schools in the fall.
Parents are going to need to go back to work, and children need supervision, routine, intellectual stimulation and the socialization that comes with going to school. And, as we have been observing during these recent months, for millions of children, the public school is the only institution positioned to provide opportunities that may be unavailable at home.
A lot of what I am reading about reopening schools and childcare centers, however, addresses some important needs of adults without carefully considering the developmental needs of the children who will be served. And some of what is being promoted addresses the priorities of the promoters themselves without considering what is needed for the students.
The agenda of Jeb Bush, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates falls in that last category. Back in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Naomi Klein published a book about promoters and philanthropists who took advantage of the New Orleans disaster by pushing desperate politicians to adopt public policies that would benefit the promoter’s ideological obsession or, in some cases, the promoter’s bottom line. In The Shock Doctrine, Klein explains: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6) You will remember that the state’s seizure of New Orleans’ public schools and the eventual creation of an all-charter school district experiment was helped along by a big grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with grants from several other foundations.
This same sort of temptation to repurpose a catastrophe seems to have taken possession of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Last week he announced a plan to work with with Bill Gates to create a gigantic statewide experiment with online learning. Announcing his plan to “reimagine” public education, Cuomo declared: “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”
And it’s not only Andrew Cuomo who has fallen for the lure of technology. All month, Jeb Bush—Florida’s former governor and chair of the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a pro-privatization think tank that Jeb founded in 2008)— has been promoting a similar agenda. Despite that states are in desperate need of an infusion of federal support to keep teachers employed and class size reasonable, Jeb warns that just using the money to get schools back up and running will be a wasted opportunity: “There will be no end to ways to spend the money: Education is expensive, and there will be plenty of claims on the money. Teacher pensions are depleted. School workers—bus drivers, support staff, administrators—all will want CARES funds to fill gaps in their budges. Then there are public colleges that have lost out on tuition dollars. Trying to spread the money among all these causes would mean not accomplishing much on any of them… (W)ith this pot of money, it is far better to try to make a lasting impact on one big initiative. Governors should entertain what I call ‘long runway’ ideas—areas where the investment will pay off over a long period of time. Think about what has the best payoff: patching a lot of potholes, or rebuilding a major bridge?”
Jeb Bush has four “long-runway ideas” and the first, of course, is digital learning—eliminating the digital divide. Bush expands on this idea: “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones. But stopping distance learning over equity concerns is a false choice. Many school districts, state leaders and others have figured out how to keep instruction going. Some opened access to virtual schools. Some, supported by private donations, have given laptops and tablets to students who need them… It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms—not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning… Longer term, all K-12 schools need to adapt to distance learning. Already, one third of college students take courses online.”
Naomi Klein herself reminds us that her “Shock Doctrine” theory is becoming operational in the midst of the current pandemic crisis. Klein reports that New York’s Governor Cuomo has been seeking guidance not merely from Bill Gates, but also from Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. While Cuomo asked Gates to lead the effort to “reimagine” New York’s schools, he followed up by inviting Schmidt to lead “a blue-ribbon commission to “reimagine” New York state’s post-Covid reality—with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life. Klein quotes Schmidt: “The first priorities of what we’re trying to do… are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband… We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.”
Klein concludes” “It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the ‘Screen New Deal.’ Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent—and highly profitable—no-touch future.”
The Nonprofit Quarterly‘s Martin Levine is aghast: “Cuomo saw a crisis too good to waste… His framework for change is to fully harness the marvels of technology and create a public education system highly reliant on a new and untested form of education… He didn’t choose to take on problems known to plague public education, making sure that New York’s schools are properly funded, fully staffed, and well equipped. Nor did he choose to address the critical impact of racism and wealth inequality on student success. Instead, he seeks a magic-bullet cure in technology. Following the path taken by the foundations and mega-philanthropists… he seems willing to try one more experiment out on his state’s children.”
Levine quotes a statement from Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers, in response to Governor Cuomo’s choice of Bill Gates to lead a “reimagining education” initiative. Cuomo put only two schoolteachers on his practitioners’ panel to help “reimagine” education in New York. Pallotta represents the state’s teachers who are much closer not only to the needs of children and families but also to the realities of daily life in a public school: “New York State United Teachers believes in the education of the whole child. Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings. If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. And let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.” What is striking in Pallotta’s recommendations is a plea for the kind of human connectedness that defines traditional public schools and is so essential for the health and development of children.
I give Governor Cuomo credit for wanting to improve online learning and to ameliorate the alarming digital divide among wealthy and poor New York families. Presumably he wants to ensure that the city is better prepared should a second wave of Covid-19 illnesses require a second shutdown. But his rhetoric—“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”—tells a bizarre and very different story. Does Cuomo imagine New York’s children sitting quietly, locked in their apartments with their tablets or at their computers while their parents are at work? Does he believe a machine can keep Kindergartners engaged and on task? Does he believe such a life is desirable for a five-year-old? Will computer connections online keep kids company and keep them fed? And what about adolescents—young people capable of doing more sophisticated work online and even research—but also known to lack good judgement. Wouldn’t the streets and subways fill up with kids wandering the city on their own?
Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen believes our society is capable of preparing to open public schools next fall if we collectively undertake to make it happen safely. Allen defines the problem not as a technological challenge but instead as political: “There is still time to build testing and contact-tracing programs throughout the country to try to decelerate the spread of COVIC-19 and drive the disease to low enough levels that schools can open safely… We need schools to be open so that student learning doesn’t suffer further…. We need schools to open so that parents can go back to work fully…. We need schools to be open so that routine provision of food and health resources to needy students… can resume fully…. We need colleges and universities… to be open in the fall so that the many vulnerable institutions among them don’t fail and wipe out a key pillar of our civil society and intellectual infrastructure…. Brown University and the University of California San Diego have begun building infrastructures to conduct routine testing and to run contact-tracing programs on their campuses. It is not enough, however, that some schools may be able to run programs on their own.”
Allen concludes: “Achieving security in the face of this pathogen should… be a public, not private, endeavor. Before the start of the school year, we have time to build broad public testing and contact tracing to follow chains of transmission, finding every COVID case, and supporting people in voluntary isolation…. Let’s not waste the rest of the time we have. If we do, our political institutions will have flunked a basic requirement of governance.”