Opinion

Parents must be allowed to pick their poison this school year

There are no good options this fall, particularly for disadvantaged kids, so at least let parents choose

The usual debates in education circles aren't helping right now.

These conversations — about school choice and vouchers and equity, public vs. private vs. charter vs. home, standardized testing and screen time and district residency rules and teachers' unions — can't be suspended as COVID-19 spikes around the country ahead of the start of the fall semester. But in their status quo version, such debates are distorting the more pressing matter of getting through this hell year. It won't work to shoehorn discussion of this semester into our normal policy frameworks.

Perhaps instead of sticking to those ordinary patterns, we could start with two presuppositions: Just about every option will be worse for disadvantaged students. And families should be given as many choices as possible to navigate this fall.

Parents must be allowed to pick their poison.

Consider how re-openings will affect disadvantaged students. If public schools open their doors, those with worse facilities will be primed for more HVAC-borne outbreaks; those that are overcrowded will battle to enforce distancing rules; and those that are understaffed will struggle to find subs when teachers need to get tested or treated. Parents who fight for their children to have in-class aides or special education and accommodations will have to fight even harder. Students for whom English is a second language will have more difficulty communicating with masks. Unpredictable cycles of opening and closing as positive COVID-19 tests trigger school shutdowns will be challenging for all parents, but especially for those who don't have generous family leave packages or white-collar jobs that let them work from home. Is it any wonder a majority of American oppose re-opening schools, and opposition is above average among minority and low-income families?

Hybrid approaches and fully online education have obvious safety appeal, particularly for teachers. But only 80 percent of U.S. households have internet access, and being in that 80 percent is no guarantee of having a fast, reliable connection, or a functional computer, or a computer each student can use uninterrupted for hours every day, or the supervision most children will require to sit still and actually learn something. Families with parents who aren't fluent in English will struggle to help their children when they're confused or even get basic logistical updates from teachers and administrators. Distance learning doesn't work well for younger children — kids in an irreplaceable window of brain plasticity — and few families will be able to give their youngest members the attention they need to make online classes viable.

Learning pods are an increasingly popular option among wealthier families, and understandably so. They combine in-person instruction tailored to the needs of a small group of children with minimal risk of coronavirus infection. They also guarantee kids can see and play with their friends in real life, which is deeply important for children's mental health.

But without vouchers from their school districts to pay for their portion of a pod teacher's salary, poor, working class, and middle class families won't have this option, which runs around $12,000 a year per student depending on the program and pod size. Homeschooling co-ops, where parents take turns teaching a group of kids on different days or topics, are more accessible, but they still require parents to have the time and knowledge to teach.

Warnings that pods will increase inequality aren't wrong — but they often miss the reality that education inequality will worsen no matter what we do for as long as this pandemic continues. The Trump administration's argument that schools should re-open because sticking with distance learning hurts disadvantaged communities most likewise isn't wrong — but it ignores the reality that re-opening will also hurt those same communities most.

The only good option before us, then, is not about education proper: It's ending the pandemic. But until that happens, the best thing we can do is give parents as many options as we can. What that looks like will vary widely, because pandemic conditions vary widely. But across the board, the easiest way to increase school options for this fall is to let parents access the money their school district spends annually on their kids. (Call it "universal basic education income," maybe, if you don't like "voucher.")

The national average of per-student spending is $12,612 as of 2018, which is enough to join a pod of six students. Even the lowest per-student expenditures ($7,628 in Utah) would cover a larger pod of 10-12 kids or tuition for a private or charter school, perhaps one trying creative solutions like outside education.

For some families, of course, this offer wouldn't help anything at all. I suspect most parents would leave that money with the district, making do with whatever option their state or county has selected. But I also suspect some substantial number would take their chances elsewhere.

Giving them that opportunity in this bewildering moment strikes me as the decent thing to do, even if it complicates (or, optimistically, reinvigorates) education policy post-pandemic. Maybe trying different poisons will help us find some antidotes.

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