Some families, including mine, have always had school choice. But until the pandemic, I hadn't had much occasion to think about what that really means.
After a disastrous spring of two kids doing spotty online learning through their Washington, D.C., public school, we knew we needed a change: We were contemplating a move to the suburbs, an in-person micro-school run by some friends, and an expensive traditional private school with the sort of fancy testing and hygiene plan that the public system could never manage.
We even briefly considered starting a compound in West Virginia with some pals.
We were anxious and confused, but had the means to rebuild a proxy of a service that the government collects money for, and promises to provide.
We ended up organizing a pod of six kids from three families in a neighborhood full of overeducated, annoyingly high-functioning D.C. people. It worked out great, and the "governess" we hired—as he calls himself—is adored by our kids.
For us, the city's faltering efforts to reopen became just a mildly stressful inconvenience. But what about people who can't afford these options and are already grappling with massive uncertainties and a sense of powerlessness in their lives, such as parents who are out of work, homeless, or struggling with substance abuse?
A recent ProPublica investigation told the story of a gifted 12-year-old named Shemar attending a fully remote East Baltimore public school. His family's effort to access the free Wi-Fi provided by Comcast "foundered quickly in a bureaucratic dead end."
"No one made sure that Shemar logged on to his daily class or completed the assignments that were piling up in his Google Classroom account." His grandmother was on the scene, but she "attended little school while growing up in a sharecropping family…His great-uncle, who also lived in the house, had dropped out of school in South Carolina around the age of 8 and was illiterate."
In Baltimore, "[c]itywide, about 80% of students had logged on," ProPublica reported, "but only 65% were reliably present, according to the district. Before the pandemic, the attendance rate was 87%."
In Los Angeles, kindergarten enrollment was down by about 14 percent; in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by 17 percent. And the prospects for kids who did enroll weren't great. According to one study, only one in three school districts required teachers to deliver instruction during the spring part of the lockdown.
There is money to give kids like Shemar the sort of choices that my family has. Inflation-adjusted per-student spending has risen 280 percent since 1960, and the U.S. currently spends over $15,000 per child each year. Yet when COVID-19 struck, for most families, there was no mechanism that would allow them to use that money to better serve their particular needs.
District schools with massive technology budgets struggled to get laptops, tablets, or hotspots to kids in need. School libraries full of books sat silent and unused. Playgrounds were roped off.
Students lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics and one and a half months of learning in reading, according to a McKinsey study. Schools that predominantly serve students of color were most impacted.
Meanwhile, we learned that opening schools for young children isn't a major risk. Brown University economist Emily Oster worked with a team to create a dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases in schools. She says, "This summer there was this idea that we're going to open schools and that's going to be the thing that destroys everything. That does not seem to be true. We're not seeing schools as the locus of large amounts of spread. The rates are actually quite low."
Schools were imposing tremendous costs on families for very little benefit in controlling the spread of COVID-19.
But even worse is the sense of powerlessness for too many families. Their lives had been disrupted, and despite the huge amount of resources in the system, they were being told that they had no alternatives.
We always knew that when local governments negotiate with teachers unions, the needs of students and their parents are the first to get traded away. During the pandemic, that dynamic has meant that attending in-person school is a privilege afforded to the children of the rich.
Families like mine already have choices. The horrors of the last year have laid bare the fundamental inequality of denying the same power over their children's education to everyone else.
Written by Katherine Mangu-Ward. Edited and graphics by Isaac Reese.Camera by Meredith Bragg.
Music: "Killing Time" and "Just Before I Saw Her" by Stanley Gurvich
Photos: Everett Collection/Newscom; Circa Images/Newscom; KEVIN MOHATT/REUTERS/Newscom; MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS/Newscom; Lev Radin/Sipa USA/Newscom; Johnny Louis/JL/Sipa USA/Newscom; Peter Titmuss/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Newscom; JOHN ANGELILLO/UPI/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Lev Radin/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Rafael Ben Ari/Dreamstime; Ales Utouka/Dreamstime