You may remember the outrageous paean to school choice delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council back in the summer of 2017: “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.” “This isn’t about school systems… Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”
The widespread school closures we are experiencing in the midst of the pandemic are exposing the flaws in DeVos’s thinking. Our system of education is ensuring that—despite the problem of students’ wildly unequal access to technology—teachers and school administrators are at least able to stay connected with millions of students. The executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris reports on surveys the organization conducted with educators and parents to learn how they are experiencing remote learning during the school closures. She reports the response of, “Jeff Palladino… the principal of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, located (in the Bronx) in the most impoverished congressional district in the United States. Sixty percent of Fannie Lou Hamer students are Latino, and 39 percent are black. Their parents are either workers declared essential or suffering from the worry of being laid off… ‘The first thing we do is check in with our at-risk kids—kids with emotional issues, health issues, kids who were at-risk before Covid-19… We call and make sure they are okay.’ His school (in the Bronx) has lost four parents to the disease to date… School counselors follow up with students who are struggling, speaking with parents as well as kids.”
At least the fact that public schools are one of our nation’s primary social institutions creates pressure on states and local school districts to maintain services online, even despite the severity of problems in, for example, Chicago, where the Sun-Times reports that the school district has not been able to come up with enough computers and internet hotspots despite enormous effort and expense: “CPS has separately purchased 53,000 additional devices, up from an initial pledge to buy 37,000 once a greater need was determined. Those include 31,300 Chromebooks, 16,700 iPads and 5,000 Windows laptops. About 43,000 of those computers have arrived and are being sent out this week to 155 schools that have been selected to receive the first batch. The rest aren’t expected to come until sometime in May.” Here, of course, we see the severity of longstanding inequality across schools and among the families they serve.
In a column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, education historians Ann Marie Ryan and Charles Tocci comment on the alarming educational inequality exposed by the pandemic: “It is important to note at the outset that not all families are experiencing ‘school at home’ similarly, just as they do not experience school in the same way. Significant social inequities have caused many students to be without home access to the Internet or a device appropriate for schoolwork… And given the structure of our society, factors such as geography, race, and socio-economic class most strongly correlate with these disparities. Covid-19 and the deepening economic crisis give us a new perspective on the existing disparities within U.S. schooling….”
Despite public schools’ limitations in these virtual schooling months, and despite the inequity that surrounds and permeates them, however, the systemic presence of public schools—spread across small towns, city neighborhoods and suburbs; funded with state-constitution-driven formulas; organized with predictable curriculum; and staffed with millions of teachers educated about pedagogy, developmental psychology, educational philosophy, and their particular academic disciplines—leaves these institutions better prepared to serve students and to survive the current crisis with a strong foundation. Public schools are more stable than the many other institutions families need in these times when most parents have to hold jobs outside the home in order to survive.
The NY Times’ Eliza Shapiro describes, for example, the dilemma children and their parents will face this summer in New York City, when schools are closed along with every other institution parents count on to care for their children and enrich their lives during the summer school break: “The spread of the coronavirus in New York has prompted the cancellations of most summer programs for children… New York City’s pools, beaches and parks are typically filled with families trying to find respite on humid days, and subway cars are often crowded with students enrolled in free summer camps heading to air-conditioned museums… The usual roster of city-funded camps will not happen. The summer youth employment program, which typically enrolls about 75,000 low-income students each year, is canceled.” Even the public libraries, another systemic institution, are shut down indefinitely. Childcare has never had a widespread systemic presence across the United States, and funding for pre-K programs—an institution just emerging in some places like Washington, D.C. and New York City—is threatened in what is expected to be a serious recession.
Ryan and Tocci summarize the many social functions we have come to expect from public schools in normal times: “The many social benefits that schools offer their communities in addition to educating students—such as feeding children, providing health care and social services, as well as socializing youth under the guidance of trained adults—became a core part of public schooling through the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century… And it is exactly these functions that our districts have not been able to bundle with remote learning because a fundamental premise of our system is that schools are place-based institutions. Schools are geographically, socially ,and culturally enmeshed in their local communities through daily interactions in and around the building.”
In her introduction to Ryan and Tocci’s column, Valerie Strauss reminds us: “The pandemic has provided us a new vantage on the value of neighborhood public schools, and we will soon have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the goal of ensuring students are fully supported at all times.”
In the same way, in his thoughtful 2014 book, Why School? , Mike Rose considers not only the purpose of public schooling, but a broader set of issues—on top of the urgent need address inequality—which we must reconsider once schools re-open. Much of what Rose values is what we’ve been observing as public school educators reach out to students and families during this period when schools have gone online during the pandemic. He begins Why School? with a brief summary of the ways our thinking and policy shaping American public education have gone astray: “We’ve lost hope in the public sphere and grab at market-based and private solutions, which undercut the sharing of obligation and risk and keep us scrambling for individual advantage… As we try to improve our schools, we rush to one-dimensional solutions, to technological and structural ‘game changers’ that all too often lead to new problems. We’ve narrowed the purpose of schooling to economic competitiveness, our kids becoming economic indicators. And we’ve reduced our definition of human development and achievement—that miraculous growth of intelligence, sensibility, and the discovery of the world—to a test score.” (Why School?, p ix-x)
Rose challenges us to value our public schools as essential institutions, but not merely to be satisfied to open school back up the way things were before the pandemic: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose. We should also ask why we’re evaluating. To what end? Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us… My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school… In our time, teaching is acknowledged as important but is often defined as a knowledge delivery system. Yet teaching carries with it the obligation to understand the people in one’s charge, to teach subject matter and skills, but also to inquire, to nurture, to have a sense of who a student is… How we think about and voice the purpose of school matters.” (Why School? pp. 201-216)