Few areas of American life went untouched by the pandemic, but few have been upended more than education.
Most recently the discussion has centered on what our public schools teach about divisive topics such as race and human sexuality. But there’s more going on here, and to understand the latest harmful education proposal from the White House, we must recall an early sign of parental discontent.
About two years ago, parents were beginning to lament the continued closure of schools. They had educational concerns: It was clear the vast majority of educators weren’t equipped to teach remotely, nor students to learn remotely. They also had practical concerns: As talk turned to reopening the economy, many employees couldn’t return to work because their children would be stuck at home, unsupervised.
So around the same time a refrain began to emerge from some educators: You just think of us as glorified babysitters.
That wasn’t what most frustrated parents meant, though it’s telling that that’s what aggrieved teachers – many of whom were themselves struggling to juggle childcare needs with work – latched onto. It illustrates an approach the education establishment has championed, consciously or not, for a century.
That approach? Treating education as a commodity.
Now, I’m sure your local school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, librarians and all the rest will object loudly to that characterization. And yet:
They are the ones, with few exceptions, who insist that education continue to fit within a factory-like schedule, with uniform time periods for each subject during the day.
They are the ones, with the odd exception, who treat the mastery of content as something that either happens within the prescribed number of days (the fractions “unit,” for example) or doesn’t. The notion of letting students advance to the next concept once they’ve grasped the current one, no later but also no sooner, has been slow to catch on.
They are the ones, with rare exceptions, who harp on the expense of buildings, HVAC systems, buses – in short, the “system” – whenever the discussion turns to what it takes to educate a child.
And they are the ones, almost monolithically, who insist any form of choice within or outside the “system” necessarily takes away from their fixed slice of the pie. Theirs is a zero-sum mentality that stifles dynamism, innovation, specialization and all the other attributes of the healthiest aspects of our economy and society.
Educators say they want to be treated like professionals. But everywhere you turn, they treat education like a commodity.
Now for that harmful proposal: The Biden administration wants to withhold federal funding from new public charter schools unless, among other things, they work more closely with traditional public schools and prove there is “sufficient demand” for their services due to over-enrolled traditional public schools.
The former requirement is a poison pill ensuring fewer people would start charter schools, since the freedom to operate is a fundamental premise for doing so. It’s also a sop to teacher unions, who would have more ability to bring charter teachers under their sway (that alone explains why the self-declared “most pro-union president in history” would offer this proposal).
The latter requirement reflects the commodity approach to education. Not only does it echo the abominable “certificate of need” regime that stifles progress in healthcare. It also treats every seat in every school as essentially the same – as a commodity, irrespective of different needs or possibilities.
Why, besides over-enrollment, might parents want a charter school? Try student achievement, differentiated curricula, school culture, approaches to discipline – the list goes on. Parents want charter schools because they reject the philosophy of commoditized education.
This is a central but underappreciated lesson of the pandemic. K-12 education is one of the last fields to offer specialization on a wide, and widely obtainable, scale. For various reasons, parents realized that during the pandemic more than ever before.
The Biden administration’s starvation diet for public charter schools would deny parents what they want. It should be rejected.