Are public schools at risk of a death spiral?

A classroom.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Last month, my local school district decided — suddenly, on short notice, and over the objections of many parents — to lengthen Thanksgiving break from a few days to a full week. Families were given just a handful of days to make childcare arrangements for the unexpected extra vacation.

School officials acknowledged the pain, but inisisted extra time off was needed for educators suffering from high rates of burnout: A number of teachers had quit after the school year had begun, leaving administrators scrambling to cover their classes. "The attempt is to try to prevent more teachers from leaving the profession and trying to prevent that breaking point," said the district's superintendent.

But teachers aren't the only ones dealing with burnout, and this kind of thing is happening all over. If it keeps up, it might end up wrecking America's public school system.

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The New York Times reports that schools across the country are reducing in-person classroom time. Detroit's schools are closed on Fridays, with only remote instruction offered. The same thing is happening in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. And schools in Seattle and Florida also extended their Thanksgiving breaks. As in my district, many of these reductions in classroom time are a reaction to pandemic-fueled teacher attrition. "What you hear from teachers is that it's been too much," said Randi Weingerten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers. "And they're trying the best that they can."

Even schools that stay open are running into trouble. Last month, parents in a Minnesota school district protested after discovering their kids were being forced to eat lunch outside in cold temperatures as a COVID mitigation method. On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg tweeted that children in her daughter's school were largely being forced to do the same — and that the vaxxed kids allowed to eat inside weren't allowed to talk to each other.

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The potential for backlash here is obvious. Glenn Youngkin's recent win in Virginia's gubernatorial race, a largely unanticipated victory for Republicans, was partly driven by parental anger over COVID-driven school closures. The real risk isn't that Democrats will lose elections, however, but that families will look for alternatives to public schools, sending some districts into a death spiral. There are signs that has already started: Private schools — which tended to remain open during the first year of the pandemic — have seen their enrollments rise.

Families with fewer resources may soon get to join the rush: Supreme Court justices indicated Wednesday they're prepared to rule that states which already make some funds available for kids who go to nonsectarian private schools must do the same for families who choose religious schools. That prospect makes progressives angry, but it suggests many parents will soon have expanded educational options.

Options can be good, but public schools have deservedly been called "America's greatest success story." Right now they're struggling. The danger is that those struggles will send families fleeing and that success will be no more.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.