School Reopening – It’s All Politics Now?

It’s easy to knock (and a favored sport for some) Politico for focusing on horse race politics – but the debate about reopening schools has become horse race politics not substance so this is a pretty good overview:

President Joe Biden’s vow to reopen most schools during his first 100 days is crashing into demands of one of his party’s most powerful constituencies: teachers’ unions. And the friction is creating an early test for the Democratic Party’s commitment to following the advice of scientists when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

That about covers it. And already reductionist claims that would have occasioned knowing clucking and tsk tsking had the chronically fact challenged Trump Administration made them are now greeted with crickets. John Bailey unpacks some of the weediness with the Wisconsin study and the idea that all we need is money, for instance, in his indispensable daily Covid newsletter (you can subscribe here).

The bottom line is the White House and CDC are not in the same place on reopening and there are a lot of politics. A few weeks ago such dissonance was seen as an existential threat to the republic, today a shrug. It’s entirely reasonable for political officials to disagree with scientists, we just shouldn’t be so situational about our response to it. And in general, this is not a great look for the sector. Let’s hope the White House is at least getting some concessions on other issues.

Few things:

– Some people are dismissing the calls for ventilation to be a priority. This seems like a mistake given what we know about air quality in schools in general and then also the evidence on ventilation and Covid-19. Arguing against the idea that money is the only thing schools need to reopen is not the same as arguing money doesn’t matter for short and long terms response efforts here.

– Does not seem like we’re doing a good job disentangling a massive Covid-19 testing plan for schools as a confidence building measure versus as a public health strategy. And there is a lot of money in play at a time when equity strategies like targeted tutoring could also use an infusion of billions of dollars. There might be more cost effective ways to build public confidence?

– People keep saying parents are fed up and aren’t going to take it any more. And yes, a lot of otherwise down the line progressive and woke parents sound like Pinkerton men when discussing the teachers unions right now.* But with a few exceptions (there is an effort in CA worth keeping an eye on, for instance) it doesn’t seem that parents are well organized right now. The teachers unions are. A basic rule in politics is organized and focused power beats disorganized sentiment most of the time. Given the larger politics it’s hard to see Republicans figuring out how to take advantage of this politically in the short term (speaking of not good looks, they have a Parkland denier on the House committee that handles education). Democrats want the new president to succeed in the pivotal early going. And the issues are complicated. So it’s unclear, absent a concerted effort, how parent angst plays out politically.

– We still seem to have no consensus or real leadership on an important aspect of the CDC’s recommendation – you can’t have everything open if you want schools open. As others have noted, if this is a national marshmallow test we’re failing. That’s an unfair burden to lay on schools and school leaders.

Here’s some past BW and Eduwonk content on this issue: Questions about reopening here, a look at whether a push for a 100 day reopening strategy might create bad incentives, CALDER data, webinar with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Brown’s Emily Oster. And is the ‘best of both worlds’ concurrent approach a recipe for mediocrity?

*A more gentle sentiment is this one, via Matt Bai, that you also hear:

What I keep thinking about, though, are all the times over the years I’ve asked leaders of teachers unions about some of the controversial reforms they’ve long resisted — merit pay, relaxed tenure, scaled back pension plans.

Every time, they’ve dismissed these ideas with the argument that teachers belong in a special category — that they are public servants, every bit as essential as soldiers and first responders, who forgo careers with higher pay and more prestige for the privilege of educating our children.

I actually agree with this. A lot of us do. We know teachers deserve more money and more respect, not less.

But all of those other public servants whom we can’t do without — cops and firefighters, nurses and National Guard troops, mail carriers and DMV workers, spies and bureaucrats — have been back on the job for months or never left. (Not to mention the workers at your local supermarket and drugstore.)

One Reply to “School Reopening – It’s All Politics Now?”

  1. While it’s true that essential workers (physicians, nurses, firefighters, etc.) have returned to their worksites months ago or never left, they had to go these sores due to the nature of their jobs. Teachers CAN work from home, thus keeping students, other staff, and the general public safe. Many of my colleagues and I are working even harder from home for no additional compensation—just concern for our students and society at large.

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