New York City residents still dependent on public schools received good-ish news this week. The teachers' union—which threatened to strike unless the city met its demands for COVID-19 precautions—finally came to an agreement with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza. Under the deal, union leaders get to say they protected their members' interests, while city officials get to claim that schools are safer than ever. And parents get to figure out what to do with their kids during unplanned days of idleness as the beginning of classes is pushed back a week and a half.
"Under the terms of the agreement, all New York City public school buildings will remain closed to students until Sept. 21, while final safety arrangements are completed, including the assignment of a school nurse to every building, ventilation checks and the presence of sufficient protective and cleaning supplies," boasted the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) labor union. "The decision on whether to reopen a building to students will be based on the UFT 50-item safety checklist, including social distancing of student desks, the availability of masks and face shields, and a room-by-room review of ventilation effectiveness."
"This is a great day for every public school student in New York City," insisted de Blasio. "We face a return to school unlike any in our city's history, but New Yorkers have made it possible because of their extraordinary work fighting back COVID-19. Our agreement puts the health and safety of our 1.1 million students, teachers, and school staff above everything else."
The announcements resolved weeks of uncertainty for students and parents that saw the UFT threatening to strike as recently as the day before the deal was finalized. Families counting on the public schools for their children's education had no way to know if they were actually going to get any education in return for the $25,000 that New York City schools extract from taxpayers and spends per pupil every year.
The UFT isn't alone in its brinksmanship. Unions from Sacramento, California to Andover, Massachusetts held up the reopening of government schools, overtly using kids as bargaining chips to extract concessions over working conditions.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles went further, at one point demanding wealth taxes, police reform, and a moratorium on charter schools as necessary preconditions for reopening public schools. The union settled for remote-only classes.
Threatening strikes and refusing to show up for work have been effective tactics so far, since there's a lot of leverage to be had in keeping parents uncertain as to the educational fate of their children, or even as to where they will spend the day while their parents work. But the labor actions have also created openings for education alternatives.
Private schools, learning pods, microschools, charters, and homeschooling approaches offer parents options that suit their preferences—options that can usually be adopted without waiting on the pleasure of third parties with their own agendas. With their public spats, last-minute agreements, and one-size-fits-few compromises government schools and teachers unions are handing unprecedented marketing opportunities to the competition.
"If your school in the Greater Boston area has a delayed opening or is going fully remote, check out our website to find a Catholic school near you that is offering live in-person instruction," tweeted the Catholic Schools Office of the Archdiocese of Boston on August 28. "All are welcome—learn more today!"
"Do you know what you are doing for school this fall?" Prenda, which offers a model for microschools, posted on Facebook on August 27. "Join us to learn more about Prenda Family, our full-service at-home education program with a learning model, community, and curriculum that is designed to help your kids become empowered learners."
In other cases, parents tackle education with a DIY approach.
"Nobody working in education today can escape pandemic learning pods: the increasingly popular phenomenon in which families band together and hire a private tutor to offer in-person learning to a small group of children," The Washington Post noted this week.
Families that have neither the resources nor the inclination to pay tuition or a share of a tutor's fees are taking on the task themselves and discovering that education doesn't have to be expensive.
"Interest in homeschooling has 'exploded'," the Associated Press reports. "Some are worried their districts are unable to offer a strong virtual learning program. For others who may have been considering homeschooling, concerns for their family's health amid the coronavirus and the on-again, off-again planning for in-person instruction are leading them to part ways with school systems."
Kids are increasingly being educated by their own relations, or in co-op style by groups of like-minded parents who share responsibilities for a pool of children.
The move by motivated families who can manage education alternatives even as they pay taxes for institutions plagued by squabbling amongst union leaders and government officials has some people worried about inequality. Public schools are poised to become the Medicaid of learning—lower-quality government offerings of last resort.
If—when, more likely—that happens, education bureaucrats and union officials will have nobody to blame but themselves.
"Somewhere along the way, I believe we flipped the purpose of this," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the New York Daily News editorial board during a 2015 discussion about schools. "This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers. This was a program to educate kids."
But, as Cuomo acknowledged, kids are beside the point when government officials and union leaders keep them waiting on negotiations that serve everybody but the people who depend on public schools. So families are leaving to explore the world beyond.
And as families grow accustomed to choosing what works for their children rather than accepting what they're given, fewer of them are going to be eager to return their kids to the roles of hostages in labor negotiations. If we're serious about educating everybody, all families should be allowed the freedom to do the same.