In case you didn’t experience it last semester, online learning was a failure. Across the country, fewer than half of students showed up, and those who did completed only partial work. I frequently had only a few students finish even the simplest assignments.
The year’s conclusion, normally a celebratory affair, ended with a whimper. I can forgive such a meager showing. Forced to create an online learning system within a matter of weeks, schools faced a tremendous task. For a semester, at least they tried.
Now, however, they’re giving up while still demanding our money and support. According to The New York Times, unions are demanding schools remain closed, and some are even calling for limits on online learning. Again, I could forgive such a bold move if unions made any sort of concession, but they haven’t and they won’t.
The rest of the nation’s workers have faced cuts that unions are refusing to even consider. By early April, almost 20 percent of America’s workers faced either pay cuts, furloughs, or outright termination. It was a misfortune, but one we were told was necessary to protect public health. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, teachers worked two fewer hours than normal each day, with many in Chicago public schools only logging on a few times a week.
It seems only fair to return some tax money to struggling families. Many states have school choice programs. There’s no reason education dollars cannot extend to homeschools and families throughout the pandemic.
If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. It’s axiomatic. Public schools needn’t face complete defunding, but I cannot fathom why anyone should receive a paycheck for a service not provided. If schools remain open, teachers should be paid. If schools offer less than full instruction, teacher wages should reflect that and be diverted to those taking on the educational responsibilities. While it would be a hardship, I could bear a 50 percent pay cut, knowing my unearned money helped a different family make ends meet while they took on the brunt of the instruction at home.
A monetary return is ethical in itself, but there is a better way to allocate resources beyond a mere refund. The best thing Washington can do is to fund measures that deliver a real education this semester. As a former public educator, I know that public school buildings, while venerable institutions, might not be the best avenue this year for teaching some children their phonics or U.S. history.
The most promising response to online learning of late has been an upswell of new micro-schools and learning pods during Wuhan virus lockdowns. Unsatisfied with online education in the spring, many families are banding together to teach their children, either hiring a tutor or taking turns running the homeschool.
These micro-schools give parents freedom to work, reduce the network of people who could spread the virus, and guarantee in-person education. Movements like these offer a promising alternative to nine more months of online learning or union shoulder-shrugging. The same principle that applies to school choice programs — tax dollars follow the student — should apply to these other educational solutions throughout the pandemic.
GOP Senate legislation has already placed $70 billion on the table for education funding. Instead of blindly allocating blank checks to districts, this money would be better distributed as vouchers, as stimulus checks to families for educational purposes. If a family is content with their public school’s response, that district can still receive stimulus funds. Otherwise, families and “pods” could use this money for their newly created homeschools, supplies, or tutors.
Several states tried similar measures even before the pandemic. Families can use Education Savings Accounts for designated educational purposes such as college savings, supplies, or private-school tuition. Research shows school choice measures such as these, adopted in non-pandemic times, improve academic achievement and even student mental health. How much more during a crisis?
From there, the Department of Education should get out of the way. Let homeschooling parents take voucher money for accepting a few extra students. Loosen content regulations so schools can go on or offline as necessary, modifying curriculum as they go. Expand choice so parents who are uncomfortable with a school opening can send their kid to a different district with online options, and parents tired of online school can send children to in-person classes in a different ZIP code. Allow schools to hire people without degrees to proctor online classes for at-risk teachers who would prefer to stay home.
Cutting teacher pay and defunding schools may be a politically infeasible goal, even if deserved. Making the best use of the next round of stimulus legislation, however, is still in discussion. If schools don’t open their doors and refuse online learning, it would be not only silly but outright unjust to send checks to shuttered doors over struggling families.