Today I had my event with Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, hosted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. The video should be posted in a couple days after they finalize the transcript. In the meantime, if you’d like to see my opening remarks, here they are:
Public schools have been sticking it to many low-income and minority students since they were founded. Public schools have been segregated for most of their history by law. Even after state-compelled segregation was ended, public schools continue to be highly segregated because district boundaries were drawn with red lines separating communities by race. Outcomes for low-income and minority students remain abysmal despite huge increases in school spending, now exceeding $15,000 per pupil.
Public schools have been able to get away with this shocking mis-education of disadvantaged students because, despite all of their failings, public schools have managed to serve upper-income families reasonably well. As long as the public school system could maintain the support of advantaged families, the disproportionate political power of wealthier families protected public education from fundamental restructuring, including a significant expansion in school choice.
Upper-income families could pick suburban districts that gave them what they wanted and permitted greater parental input. The fact that wealthier families often supplemented their children’s education with enriching activities outside of school also helped mask any deficiencies in the quality or content of those suburban public schools.
These arrangements engendered a high level of affection for public education among these wealthy and disproportionately powerful families despite reports of severe difficulties in large, urban school districts. With limited direct experience of the dysfunction of urban public education, wealthy families were willing to believe that the problems stemmed from a lack of funding or from societal ills beyond the power of schools to control. Advantaged families were strongly disinclined to risk any disruption in their comfortable arrangements because of problems for other people’s children, especially when they could seize upon spending or social problems as rationalizations to leave the status quo intact.
The pandemic dramatically changed these political dynamics when the public education system failed to deliver what many advantaged parents wanted. Specifically, the public system broke faith with upper-income families by flagrantly resisting in-person instruction, prioritizing the needs of union members over those of parents. In addition, remote learning allowed upper-income families to see the instruction that their children were receiving and many were shocked by its low quality and radical content.
As suburban families organized to object to that radical content to their local school boards, they were further shocked to discover how unresponsive those school districts had become. And when the Biden Administration, with union support, issued a letter orchestrating an effort by the FBI and government agencies to investigate protesting parents as potential domestic terrorists, the inability of even wealthy parents to control the public education of their own children was laid bare.
Education is an extension of parenting and parents want significant control over how their children are raised and educated. The current arrangements of the public education system survived because wealthy parents believed they had that control. Once it was revealed that they also lacked this control, they mobilized politically to regain the autonomy they desire. This resulted in an enormous increase in educational choice over the last year, creating 7 new programs and expanding 21 existing ones in 18 states.
School choice is a one-way ratchet. Once people have experienced an expanded set of options, they are very resistant to having those options taken away. In addition, the broken faith between the public school system and advantaged families will take a lot of time and effort to restore even after schools return to in-person instruction and disputes over masks and vaccines fade. This means that the political pressure for further expansions of school choice remains strong for the foreseeable future.
This last year has given us a glimpse of the future and that future contains a lot more school choice. Because education is an extension of parenting and because parents are best situated to raise their own children, all parents should have control over where and how their children are educated. It is a shame that it took a pandemic and bad political miscalculations on the part of the unions to make advantaged families experience the same feeling of being out of control that poor families have long felt. But now that wealthier families are getting on board for school choice, all families can benefit from its expansion.