Betsy DeVos Derides Our System of Public Schools but Today’s School Closures Show Why the System Matters

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the flaws in the thinking of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  As you may remember, back in July, 2017, in a speech at the annual meeting of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council, DeVos declared:

“Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…  ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’…  I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Well, right now we are watching DeVos’s theory play out. For legitimate public health reasons, public schools have been closed—whether for a few weeks or through the end of the school year—and we are relying on families. Right now, in DeVos’s words, “Families are on the front lines of this fight.”

One of the things we are discovering during our pandemic emergency is the significance—the meaning really—of the public education system we have created over the generations. We are being forced to recognize that our society’s systemic provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served.  Our public schools are the primary institution in our society responsible for securing the rights and addressing the needs of all children.

For Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk summarizes what will be some of the inevitable results of the widespread shutdown of public schools: “Education historians and researchers struggled to come up with a historical precedent to this brave new school-less world.  The only certainty, they said, is that the long-term impacts for students will be severe, and most likely long lasting.  Student learning will suffer in general—and longstanding gaps in performance between advantaged and vulnerable students will widen… a combination both of weakened instruction and the other social consequences of the pandemic.”  “While there’s little research specifically on pandemics’ effect on learning, research on adjacent topics—chronic absenteeism, the amount of learning time, online learning—is sobering.”

At the Los Angeles Times, several reporters collaborated to construct a report on challenges not only for students but also for teachers. They describe one fourth-grade teacher who, “is working hard to keep her students learning now that schools are closed. She shares detailed lesson plans on Google Drive, sends messages to families every day and delivers YouTube lectures from her home.  But only three or four of her 28 students accessed their schoolwork last week, she said.  Some don’t have computers and others are without internet access.  One student can only open assignments on her father’s phone when he gets home from work… (T)he reality is really complicated.  As teachers scramble to adjust to an entirely new world of education, they are coming up against significant barriers.  There is uneven access to technology, difficulties communicating with students and parents, and uncertainty about expectations at a time when many families are suffering… (T)eachers are struggling to get their students online—some children had never used the computers at home and many families don’t have internet access. In some cases, children in higher grades are now having to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work and are unable to dedicate time to their own schoolwork….”

While many school districts have invested in Chromebooks the schools are handing out to students to enable them to participate in the programs the same districts are struggling to provide online, many families have no broadband internet access at home. The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell provides interactive tables showing the disparities across Ohio’s  610 school districts in the number of families whose homes are wired for high speed internet.  It is not surprising that the three school districts the state seized for state takeover due to low aggregate student test scores are school districts where large percentages of families lack home internet access. In Youngstown the percentage of families without broadband internet access is 33.8 percent, in Lorain 35.5 percent, and in East Cleveland 46.1 percent. Children in families where there is no computer access frequently use the public library when homework assignments require them to use the internet, but, of course, today the public libraries are closed to prevent transmission of the virus.

A brief last week from the Brookings Institution describes how the digital divide is making the current school closures more complicated for the nation’s poorest families: “Among the many challenges—from providing meals for low-income students to finding child care for essential workers—relying on remote learning and online classes also exposes the country’s deep digital divides…  According to 2017 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 3.1 million households (14.1%) with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection at home. Though some of these families likely have a wireless subscription, these data plans aren’t sufficient for extended online learning. The transition to digital learning will be especially challenging within lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Broadband adoption rates in Black and Latino or Hispanic households lag behind white households by 6.8% and 3.4% respectively… Our own research shows that as neighborhood poverty rises, the broadband adoption rate falls precipitously…  As part of a recent project focused on the connection between broadband, equity, and health, Brookings Metro heard repeated stories of parents who have used patchwork solutions to overcome broadband barriers: taking their kids to McDonald’s after work for Wi-Fi access, or sitting outside the local library or even a gas station to connect.”

Schools and school teachers meet another urgent need that families cannot meet on their own. Teachers in the most personal way provide support not only for children and adolescents but also for their parents. Parents keep track of their children’s needs, academic progress and social adjustment through feedback from the child about what’s happening at school and also from updates by the teacher. But parents of disabled children count on the school for additional professional support. Public schools now provide services for 7 million students with disabilities under the requirements of the 1975, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the most poignant report I’ve read about the meaning for families of the widespread school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Valerie Strauss describe the unique challenges for school districts trying to provide necessary and appropriate services for special needs students. They report on a parent whose eighth-grade son on the autism spectrum is now missing the services his school provides: “At school, (he) has a huge support team: a vision therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, learning behavioral therapist, and various teachers in the classroom, adaptive special education, and special subjects.”

Meckler and Strauss continue: “The needs of students with disabilities vary. Some students struggle to use computers or need adaptive technology. Others depend on routines for mental stability, or rely on speech and occupational therapists who normally provide services during the school day. Many students have learning disabilities and need lessons to be modified, and some require adult support to focus on and complete their work… Some district websites and programs are not accessible to blind and deaf students.”

I hope we are paying attention today as the widespread closure of public schools highlights the importance of these institutions. What Betsy DeVos fails to understand is that educational justice for children can be realized only systemically.  Our public schools are not perfect, but over the years our society has created a system designed to guarantee services for children who bring myriad needs and who come from families facing inequality of opportunity.  Right now, if we pay attention, we can learn about the ways schools help close opportunity gaps.

Coronavirus Forces Us to Notice the Essential Role of Public Schools

Maybe someday we’ll all come to agree that we were crazy—for two decades after No Child Left Behind— to accept school closure as a “turnaround strategy” for so-called “failing” (low-scoring) public schools. Certainly the coronavirus pandemic, when public schools are being shut down to protect the public health, ought to be a wake-up call.  While we cannot question the public health experts who are prescribing such a radical step, the widespread closure of public schools provides an occasion to examine the meaning of public education across today’s America.

Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist, recently examined the widespread, permanent, closure of public schools in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. At the end of the 2013 school year, Chicago Public Schools shut down 50 so-called “failing” schools, many of them on the South and West Sides. Ewing’s focus is broader than this week’s lesson, but she does examine the essential role of public schools as core social institutions that anchor neighborhoods: “Judith Butler argues that when a community faces the loss of a place, that loss can become so insurmountable that it becomes part of the community’s own self-definition… The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

This week’s school closures—universal across many states—are only temporary, though parents and teachers cannot anticipate how long the shutdown will last.  But although schools are closed only temporarily, the closures are disruptive and disorienting.  Valerie Strauss presents tweets, some of them funny, from teachers trying to create online lessons and from lucky parents trying to work at home—two parents doing two jobs from home while their children try to study online—all on one computer.

But for society’s most vulnerable families, school may have a very different meaning. Back in 2003, just as school turnarounds—including school closure—were being prescribed as part of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, Pedro Noguera, an education sociologist (then at NYU, now at UCLA) argued that public schools are indispensable institutions: “Despite the severity of the conditions present in many urban schools, and despite the intractability of the problems they face, these deeply flawed institutions continue to serve millions of children throughout the United States. In fact, the largest school districts in the nation are classified as ‘urban’ and they serve nearly one-third of school-aged children… In a profound demonstration of faith, millions of parents voluntarily take their children each day to the very schools that have been described as ‘desperate hell holes.’… At a minimum, they may enroll their sons and daughters because they know that even at a failing public school their children will have access to a warm meal and adult supervision while they are there…  In economically depressed inner-city communities… public schools play a vital role in supporting low-income families. Even when other neighborhood services, including banks, retail stores, libraries and other public services do not exist, are shut down, or are abandoned, public schools remain. They are neighborhood constants… because they have a relatively stable source of funding, ensured by the legal mandate to educate children.”  (City Schools and the American Dream, pp. 4-6)

This past week, whether or not to close the public schools became a major dilemma and in some places, a political controversy. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the extreme vulnerability of families in places where the public school is the primary source of economic and social support.

The Chicago Sun-TimesNader Issa explains why the decision to close schools for public health reasons was so complicated and difficult in Chicago: “Families in low-income and under-resourced communities rely on schools for breakfast, lunch and daycare for their children.  Some of these families have technology deficits at home.  Students with complex needs in special education programs depend on the care of trained professionals.  Parents who work hourly or are self-employed might not be able to afford taking time off work to care for their young children. ‘In some of these communities, if we take away a school—the only public good we still offer them—then we start to leave them to fend for themselves,’ said Victoria Trinder, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor and urban elementary education program coordinator… It shouldn’t take a pandemic for policymakers to realize they need to help under-resourced communities and schools.  But the fact remains that it’s those exact hardships that mean the decision to shut down Chicago schools would undoubtedly need to be accompanied by serious social service efforts to minimize the burden on underserved communities—help that even in normal circumstances is insufficient.”

Issa profiles the special challenges for parents of children at Vaughn Occupational, a high school for special education students: “Given Vaughn students’ complex needs, including indispensable assistance from classroom aides, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to provide instruction online… That’s especially true district-wide with CPS’ more than 50,000 special education students, and others who might not have computer or internet access at home.” A parent of an autistic student explains the challenges for students like her son and for their families: “They have really high needs that can be met at schools but not at their neighbor’s house.”

Examining the decision that faced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio, the NY Times Editorial Board wonders, “What happens when working people are so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—that it puts the whole city at risk?”

As in Chicago, the NYC public schools are a primary support for the city’s most vulnerable families: “(N)early one million households in the city don’t have internet access, making online learning difficult… Of the more than one million students in New York’s roughly 1,700 schools, about 750,000 live at or below the poverty line. These children count on meals and critical services from the schools. About one in every 10 students is homeless.”

Public schools, explains the Editorial Board, are essential for more than the families whose children are enrolled: “New Yorkers should pause to absorb one important insight from the fact that the mayor and governor regarded the public schools as, essentially, the vital day care center for city workers. New York’s schools are a critical support network for the city’s children and those children’s parents are a critical support network for the city. This is both a tribute to the importance of the school system and to the hard-working New Yorkers who hold the city together, and a jarring indictment of how little support these New Yorkers receive in turn…. Like health care workers, transit employees, police officers, firefighters, E.M.S. employees, sanitation workers and other essential employees also have children in the public schools. Others, including low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck in the service industries, could not only be forced to stay home now to care for their children, but could lose their jobs as a result.”

“That is a lesson for wealthier New Yorkers in particular to consider as they work from home in the weeks ahead, perhaps ordering groceries to be delivered, counting on the hospital to be open should hey need it. A system that has left the working poor so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—turns out to have created tremendous vulnerability for society as a whole.”