School Choice

Public Schools Are Causing Irreparable Harm to Themselves

As public schools push them out the door, many families are embracing change in how they educate children.


Self-taught Fridays, extra days abruptly added to vacations, and random sudden closures proliferate in public schools across the country with the omicron variant of COVID-19 only accelerating an established trend. Parents have to hustle to make alternate plans for keeping kids occupied; with so little notice in most cases, actual education is often off the table as an option. Advocates of government-dominated schooling accuse proponents of education choice of wanting to kill government schools, but those public institutions don't seem to need any help as they incrementally terminate their own participation in the teaching business.

"To help Portland Public Schools' educators and students adjust to the stresses of resuming full-time in-person classes, the union representing the district's teachers proposes cancelling in-person instruction for high schoolers one day every week after winter break," The Oregonian reported last week. That is, classroom instruction time would be reduced by 20 percent because the union says it's too hard to do what was promised and (sort of) delivered to students and families for years before a certain virus accustomed so many to lounging at home.

Portland is hardly alone in this regard. The four-day school week is "one of the fastest-increasing—and least-studied—phenomena shaping district operations" according to Education Week. But it's only the latest of a series of disruptions to the way public schools operate.

"School districts across the nation are temporarily closing or switching back to remote learning as school administrators struggle with empty classrooms, driverless buses and understaffed cafeterias caused by widespread teacher exhaustion, coronavirus concerns and the Great Resignation," USA Today noted on November 11. That was before the omicron variant started sending some people into a frenzy (even in the absence of firm data on the risks it may or may not pose). Closures have only picked up since its appearance.

"School closures continued to increase as we have identified 916 districts (versus 858 last week, an increase of 58) across 9,313 schools (from 8,692 last week, an increase of 621) cumulatively impacted so far this Fall," according to Burbio (as of December 5), which tracks community events.

Notice to affected families ranges from as much as much as two weeks to as little as two days. Had school bureaucrats warned parents last summer that they would drop the ball yet again, parents could have considered the implications and, if so inclined, prepared for homeschooling, coordinated microschool arrangements with other parents, or enrolled their kids in private schools. Instead, they're scrambling to arrange childcare or surrendering days of wages so they can watch kids stranded at home, far from lesson plans.

What's ironic about the accelerating school closures is that public school advocates have raged against families who fled to education alternatives when government schools fumbled their pandemic response.

"I'm not the first to point out that [learning] pods are emblematic of educational inequity in the United States," Tara Chklovski CEO and founder of Technovation, an education nonprofit group, complained in August 2020. "It's a winner-take-all approach, with privileged, often mostly white students hoarding academic and social gains and further segregating our K-12 systems."

Such social-justice-y pissiness was difficult to sustain when it turned out that the most enthusiastic converts to homeschooling were African-Americans, among whom DIY education went from 3.3 percent of students pre-COVID to 16.1 percent in the fall of 2020. Nevertheless, teachers unions, control-freak politicians, and their allies continue to insist that anybody who wants to let families guide their kids' education instead of forcing them to subsidize government institutions is hell-bent on ending public schools.

That narrative also becomes difficult to sustain, or maybe just irrelevant, when public schools set about ending themselves. But instead of having the good grace to exit the scene in a planned way, they self-immolate in abrupt increments (one day here, a few days there, one-fifth of the school week elsewhere) with little provision made for transitioning to something else.

"I … and everybody in our community can no longer count on the public schools," Jennifer Reesman, a Maryland mom, told NPR after a last-minute cancellation by her local district. "And I feel like after the last year and a half, there was a lot of that sentiment that this is just not something we can count on."

It hardly matters if proponents of education choice want to kill public schools if those schools commit suicide in mid-argument. Choice advocates at least have alternatives to offer: anything families want that suits the needs of their children in achieving an education. That could include traditional public schools, but only if the staff of those institutions don't first reduce them to hollow shells. It certainly allows for private schools, charter schools, homeschooling of all sorts, microschools, learning pods, and whatever else the human imagination might conceive.

Unsurprisingly, public support for school choice is rising. EdChoice, which tracks opinion on a monthly basis, reports: Support for education savings accounts is at 70 percent in October, up five points from September; for school vouchers at 64 percent, up six points; and for charter schools at 67 percent, up six points. All of these approaches allow families flexibility in choosing how resources for education are used, rather than being taxed to fund take-it-or-leave-it district schools that just might decide to close their doors one day out of five without offering so much as a discount.

Even before public schools began playing school-day roulette with parents and students, districts across the country reported declining enrollment as families looked elsewhere.

"In the wake of pandemic school closures, school districts in Washington state saw their enrollments decline by tens of thousands of students," the Seattle Times reported November 26. "At the same time, the state's home-schooled population has ballooned, nearly doubling in size during the first full school year of the pandemic, 2020-21. Many fled citing the uncertainty and logistical problems that public schools faced."

Amid serious social disruptions, many families seem eager to embrace big changes in how their children are educated. That's good, because public schools are pushing them out the door whether or not they're ready to go.