We underfunded schools for years — and only now are leaders realizing how much we need them
“After 9/11, New York City police and firefighters were hailed as heroes,” said Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the New Mexico affiliate of the National Education Association, when I spoke with her about how educators have responded to the pandemic in her state. “After this, I hope teachers will be viewed as the community pillars that they really are,” she said.
Parr-Sanchez may get what she wished for.
In the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, the nation relied on health care and grocery store workers for survival, but that labor force couldn’t possibly turn around a crashing economy. Then, conservative governors across the nation, particularly in the South and West, thought bringing back the leisure and hospitality workforce would revive business and commerce. That didn’t turn out so well. So now a broad range of policy makers and political actors are turning to school teachers to get the economy humming again.
In May, as the pandemic was just about to explode from hotspots in the Northeast to a nationwide contagion, Forbes contributor Nick Morrison argued, “Until children go back to school, parents will have to remain at home looking after them, and it will be impossible to fully restart the economy.”
New York Times op-ed writer Spencer Bokat-Lindell, marveling at how European countries were able to reopen schools, wrote, “Restarting classes is essential not only to parents’ mental health and children’s development, but also to reviving the economy.”
“We cannot have a functioning economy, or any hope of reducing economic inequalities, without a functioning educational system,” wrote Paul Starr for the American Prospect in June.
“A consensus is emerging among top economists and business leaders,” reported Heather Long for the Washington Post in July, “that getting kids back into day cares and schools is critical to getting the economy back to normal.” She quoted chief executive of JPMorgan Chase Jamie Dimon saying, “If schools don’t open, a lot of people can’t go back to work.” Those pronouncements on the need to reopen schools in order to save the economy have turned into a drumbeat in the halls of government.
At a June hearing on Capitol Hill, senators and federal health officials called for “schools to resume some form of normal operations in the upcoming academic year, due in part to concerns about a weakened economy and the long-term welfare of children and families,” according to Education Week.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway declared, “[W]e know that opening our schools and getting our children back to their normal routines and their structural support is really the key… I think it’s the essential nervous system to this nation, and then people will be able to go back to work,” the Washington Post reported.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have submitted the Reopen Our Schools Act that would prohibit Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from providing funding to public schools and universities unless they return to in-person instruction, Fox News reported. “Reopening our schools is the lynchpin to reopening our economy,” said Indiana Representative Jim Banks, one of the authors of the bill, in a press release introducing the proposal.
A first cousin of these calls to reopen schools for the sake of the economy is the genre of commentary demanding school buildings be open full-time for the sake of parents who want to go to work after the economy fully reopens (if that ever happens).
In an article for the New York Times, Deb Perelman, a food writer, reacted in exasperation to the news that her children will physically attend school only one out of every three weeks by writing, “[M]y family, as a social and economic unit, cannot operate forever in the framework authorities envision for the fall.”
Also in the Times, columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote in an op-ed, “Even for parents who can work from home, home schooling is often a crushing burden that’s destroying careers, mental health and family relationships. And online school has had dismal results, especially for poor, Black and Hispanic students.”
What’s sadly ironic about all this sudden newfound appreciation for teachers as essential to the economy is that government leaders and policy makers, from both major political parties, have spent years attacking the economic well-being of public schools and teachers.
School districts have never recovered from budget cuts states imposed during the Great Recession that started at the end of 2007. In an article for the Progressive, Nicholas Johnson from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted, “School districts have never recovered from the layoffs… [states] imposed back then. When COVID-19 hit, K-12 schools were employing 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers—even though they were teaching two million more children, and overall funding in many states was still below pre-2008 levels.”
Teachers now make 4.5 percent on average less than they did more than 10 years ago, according to the National Education Association, and public school teachers earn 17 percent less than what comparable workers earn, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
International comparisons show classroom teachers in the U.S. work longer hours with less financial return than in practically all other countries in the industrial world.
While teachers work longer hours for less pay, they do this in schools that are often falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which issues a report card every three years to assess the nation’s infrastructure, graded the nation’s education system D+ in 2017, ASCE’s most recent national assessment.
During the Obama years, teachers became increasingly subjected to new evaluation systems that placed a heavy emphasis on student test scores that were fed into a computer-driven algorithm purported to calculate how much a teacher has contributed to student-achievement growth. The theory was never based on evidence, but these systems had a huge negative impact on teacher morale as teachers missed pay raises and even lost their jobs due to these erroneous evaluations.
While teachers endured these work-related hardships, politicians often lambasted educators for being “part-time workers” who get “full-time pay” and undermined teachers’ job security by challenging their collective bargaining rights, taking away seniority privileges, and working to end due process rights when teachers are threatened with being fired.
In the past two years, teachers across the nation have walked off the job to protest their appalling work conditions and poor pay. Their labor actions have won teachers some concessions, but there is always a backlash, as government leaders continue to ignore teacher demands for higher salaries, reduced class sizes, and increases in school support staff including more nurses, psychologists, librarians, and program specialists.
So now teachers are expected to save the nation’s bacon?
Many of the pleas to reopen schools held aloft guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that calls for students to go back to schools for in-person learning as soon as possible.
The AAP rightly acknowledged that schools and teachers “are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits.” They concluded that the harm to children from not having in-person education outweighs the risk posed by the infection.
The AAP guidelines are based on a “preponderance of evidence” that shows young children and adolescents have much lower incidences of being infected by the coronavirus.
Indeed, there is research to support this—for example, scientists in Iceland have found that children under 10 are far less likely to get the disease and transmit it to adults. But there is conflicting evidence about how reopening schools, even for young children, impacts the spread of COVID-19 in practice. For instance, reopening schools has led to new increases in infections in the UK and Israel. And one of the worst hotspots for the virus in Texas is child care centers.
It would be one thing if demands to bring back teachers and students into school buildings were accompanied by proposals to come up with the money to pay for the steep cost of reopening schools safely. But they aren’t.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has estimated the funding required to reopen public schools safely is at least $116.5 billion.
In a conversation with MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, AFT President Randi Weingarten said she agreed with the pediatricians that getting kids back to school is an important goal, but she cautioned that reopening needed to be “religious about the precautions that are needed to safeguard against the transmission of a virus in school.”
The precautions she outlined included a “hybrid situation” in which students rotate in and out of in-person and online learning, physical distancing, protective gear for students and teachers, deep cleaning of facilities, and added ventilation. She called herself a “big believer” in reopening schools under these conditions and claimed three out of four AFT members are too.
But she derided Republicans in the Senate, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for a “dereliction of duty” in not providing the funding schools need to reopen under these conditions. “Everyone says that we want to open schools… and yet they’re still not giving us the funding to do that.”
While Republicans in Congress shortchange the needs of public schools, the Trump administration is doing all it can to divert federal aid for public education to private schools.
In June, Secretary DeVos rewired guidance on how states can spend federal emergency aid for schools so that local education officials would face a Hobson’s choice of either limiting the funds to only those schools designated as high needs (Title I) or, if they choose to use the money to help all schools, diverting a share of the funds to private schools based on their total student enrollments. Critics of the guidance said this would “hamstring” local education officials, and they called the two choices “not a real alternative,” according to the Washington Post.
Then in July, the White House announced it would demand Congress set aside 10 percent of any further stimulus aid for grants to private and religious schools and approve $5 billion in federal tax credits for state-administered school voucher programs that are funded by donations from private individuals and businesses.
Only 18 states have these tax-credit programs, according to school voucher advocate EdChoice, but the Trump administration’s proposal would require any states that have not distributed their grant funds by March 30, 2021, to have their funding reallocated to states that participate in a tax-credit program. So the proposal not only fattens voucher programs with new funding; it incentivizes states to create new voucher programs.
State lawmakers are also complicit in harming schools at a time when they need government support most. Even before the costs of reopening schools were being considered, state governors from both parties—including Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine—announced deep cuts to school budgets.
Some teachers already see the impossible place they are about to be thrust into.
Teachers in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the nation’s largest school districts, have refused to follow the district’s “return to school” plan that includes an option for in-person learning because of arbitrary deadlines and lack of details in the plan, according to a statement from the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.
When Texas state lawmakers made available a draft plan to reopen schools for in-person learning without stringent safety precautions, the president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers told Reform Austin the union would consider a strike if the state goes forward with any plan that lacks adequate safety precautions.
It’s understandable that business owners and employees want to go back to work, and it’s more than fair for parents to ask schools to reopen so they can return to some semblance of normalcy. And Senate Democrats have introduced a bill calling for $430 billion in new federal spending for schools and child care.
But during all the years of teachers and schools being harmed by underfunding and “school choice” schemes, where were these folks? And will they step up now and demand the government fund our public schools?
Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.
This article was produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute.