Laura Meckler Presents Public Schools as Hopelessly Challenged: She Is Wrong

Has everything’s gone to hell in public schools?  Apparently, according to Laura Meckler’s piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, she believes that.

Meckler writes: “For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers… Political battles are now a central feature of education, leaving school boards, educators and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Schools are on the defensive about their pandemic decision-making, their curriculums, their policies regarding race and racial equity and even the contents of their libraries. Republicans — who see education as a winning political issue — are pressing their case for more “parental control,” or the right to second-guess educators’ choices. Meanwhile, an energized school choice movement has capitalized on the pandemic to promote alternatives to traditional public schools.”

COVID-19 has brought a mass of challenges to America’s public schools, our largest civic institution. But there are myriad ways Meckler fails to sort out the issues.  She fails to point out that most of the problems she names were not caused by public school leaders and teachers, and few are the result of mismanagement.  Almost all of the problems she mentions fall into one category: challenges public schools haven’t been able fully to overcome.

Meckler worries about emotional malaise among students who missed school due to COVID-19 and who are now struggling with social skills and anger or depression.  School leaders are doing everything they can within their budget constraints to involve staff to help students with emotional management, conflict resolution, and mental health, but Meckler’s catalogue of school crises leaves her no room to explore what’s being done.

Meckler mentions worries that public schools have not been able to overcome the shortage—exacerbated by COVID-19—of bus drivers and substitute teachers. Teachers and school administrators are trying to cope with the effects of staffing shortages even as they undertake to support students through a very difficult year.

And Meckler seems to believe that public schools are not doing enough to remedy “learning loss” caused by school closures and remote learning during COVID-19.  She worries “There may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.” However, Meckler doesn’t explore the ways teachers and counselors and school district attendance officers are reaching out to re-engage students, keep them in school, and help them thrive.

Jeff Lavin, a Chicago school principal, profoundly describes how he and his staff are responding to these challenges: “In my school, crisis response means re-budgeting midyear to create a new position for conflict resolution. It means a community organization bringing parent mentors to our classrooms. It means anything that gets more eyes, ears, and hearts for our children now.  It is still is not enough. There is no way to unbreak everything the pandemic broke. You cannot discipline your way out of trauma. There is nothing that can make healing not take time… Our job is to be what children need. Their needs are different now. We have to be different, too.”

Meckler worries about gun violence as a problem of public schools. School shootings are a problem of a society overrun with guns, but the problem is definitely not caused by public schools.

Meckler quotes a staff person at the pro-voucher Ed Choice about how such pro-privatization think tanks are exploiting today’s challenges for public schools as these organizations work hard to lobby state legislatures for vouchers and charter schools. She utterly fails to consider that almost nobody is celebrating remote schooling; millions of parents all over the country are demanding that their public schools reopen in person. Presumably the privatized online charter academies have suffered in reputation as we all learned that putting school on remote during COVID worked neither for students nor their teachers.

Meckler describes the uprisings by parents across American school districts—parents protesting mask mandates—parents protesting teaching about slavery and “controversial topics” that might make some children uncomfortable—parents demanding that school boards ban specific books on “controversial topics.”  She neglects to mention that what appear to be grassroots parent-led attacks are in most cases the result of  a well-designed political initiative—led by organizations like Moms for Liberty, FreedomWorks, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education—designed by think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute—and paid for by far-right philanthropists. This project has been set up to inflame white parents in segregated suburbs, or, as a new report summarized by the National Education Policy Center shows, in districts currently experiencing racial change, by stoking these parents’ fears that their privilege and their protective historical myths are threatened.

One thing I have learned after nearly eight years as a blogger: It works best to consider one issue at a time.  Considering everything all at once, as Meckler does in her Washington Post story, immediately becomes overwhelming.

Public schools are durable and complex institutions. Public school teachers and administrators are struggling right now to bring students comfortably back to school after more than a year of disruption. My belief is that most of these professional educators will survive and succeed.