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The Frantic Push to Reopen Schools Ignores Educational Inequality Before COVID

Rhetoric about children “falling behind” shows a desire to maintain a broken status quo, not a desire for true equity.

Parents pick up their children from Hawthorne Scholastic Academy following their first day of in-person learning on March 1, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois.

Part of the Series

Public K-12 schooling has long been intertwined with economic concerns in the United States, and the dysfunction of this relationship has never been clearer than in the educational fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. The complex relationship between federal, state and local control over schools — coupled with over two decades of neoliberal, corporate-driven education policies — has left the majority of schools and families in a complete tailspin in the wake of an unprecedented public health crisis. Communities are being fractured as people argue over the safety of opening schools. Local school board members are making potentially life-and-death decisions based on newly acquired knowledge of everything from HVAC metrics, to architectural blueprints, to public health codes. Misinformed tropes about powerful teachers’ unions and self-interested teachers are popping up in mainstream media, and seeping onto social media platforms and public comment forums. Parents pushed to the brink by full-time parenting and at-home work are breaking down in front of hundreds of community members on late-night Zoom meetings.

While recent polls have shown that much of the divide over whether to reopen schools during the pandemic largely falls along political lines, there are no easy answers on either side. The problems unearthed by attempting to reopen schools and by keeping schools remote are equally profound. Recent data confirms what school employees and students have known for decades — that school buildings in over half of U.S. districts are in grave disrepair, needing major updates in everything from roofing, to lighting, to, most critically, HVAC systems. Also common knowledge to most school employees is a shortage of staff, a problem that has been handled over decades by overcrowding classrooms, cutting programming and stretching available workers as far as possible. With the added need for regular quarantining due to COVID exposure, as well as requirements for in-person distancing, this shortage is now stymying in-person schooling in many places. Remote schooling too, has had its share of problems, ranging from lack of reliable technology, issues with attendance and a huge learning-curve for many teachers. Even more serious has been the psychological, physical and emotional toll on students during remote schooling.

Beyond all of the issues arising with both in-person and remote schooling, an underlying debate ensues about the actual safety of sending students and adults into school buildings during the pandemic. As new research and reporting emerge nearly daily on the topic, it is fair to say that both the short-term and long-term safety of school reopening is still unknown; it is an experiment at best, one that some families and school employees have chosen to or been forced to engage in, and others have not.

But one thing is clear: that many debates about school reopening fail to account for a larger political, economic and historical context of public education in the United States. Ironically, to now continue functioning, the economy is reliant on schools, yet it is this same economy that has, over decades, driven public schools to the brink of collapse.

For at least 30 years, the approach to education in the United States — and in other advanced nations — has been fully subsumed under a logic of free-market capitalism. Reaching back to the notorious “A Nation at Risk” report in the 1980s, our education system has been attacked for failing to provide a skilled, educated workforce, and for putting the United States at peril of losing its superpower status. Business leaders, national and international economic organizations, and politicians of both major parties have framed the most important goals of education as individual and national economic gain. In most public and policy rhetoric, the notion of school for workforce preparation and economic growth — with students and teachers as a form of “human capital” — is a paradigm that is not even questioned anymore.

This ideology is part and parcel of the neoliberal policies that have dominated society since the 1980s, which have materialized in the privatization of public assets and services, the deregulation of the market, and severe cuts to spending on the public sector and social welfare. Institutions such as public health, public education and other social services have faced untenable budget cuts and have been left to the whims of the market. In at least 22 states, school districts reported budgets in 2017 lower than they had had prior to the 2008 recession, and most are likely facing even more perilous cuts post-pandemic.

Deprived of adequate public funding, every facet of the education system has become increasingly privatized. An ethos of individual school, teacher and student responsibility has replaced support for public schools and the common public good. Everything from the proliferation of charter schools and voucher programs, to the multibillion-dollar high-stakes testing and textbook industries, to contracts for school technology have become highly sought sources of profit. The value of the U.S. K-12 education market alone in 2018 was estimated to be close to $1.5 billion, and has recently been projected to grow by over 30 percent in the next five years.

The privatization of education is deeply intertwined with and implicated by arguments about the economic goals of education, and about social and economic inequalities. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have unrolled decades of punitive, corporate-driven policies and reforms in the name of rectifying the persistent educational “achievement gap” between whites and non-whites. Rather than seeing discrepancies in educational achievement as the result of both a biased system of measurement, and generations of discrimination and oppression — what educator Gloria Ladson-Billings rightly calls the “education debt” — policy-makers have responded with large-scale, private-sector reforms to the education system.

These reforms have largely focused on “accountability” in the form of high-stakes testing, and “choice” in the form of charter schools and vouchers. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act all encompass the same misguided premises: educational inequality exists because schools, students and teachers aren’t being held accountable. Under this flawed ideology, rather than more funding, what is needed is corporate-style management and data-driven efficiency; and if allowed, families as consumers will make choices in their individual best interests in a marketplace of schools successful at producing workforce-ready students. The explosion of charter schools over the last several decades, particularly prevalent in communities of color, has been shown to actually worsen segregation and to hurt the traditional public schools that educate the majority of students. High-stakes testing has been shown to disproportionately disadvantage low-income students and students of color, and to have actually widened social and economic inequalities.

Individual schools, students and teachers who have failed to meet the standards of the enormously profitable and high-stakes testing that has come to measure success have been increasingly subject to outside-contracted, private services for remediation and support — itself a multibillion-dollar industry and growing, and highly racialized.

The effect of these reforms on the ability of schools and districts to function as healthy communities and vibrant educational ecosystems has been well documented over the past three decades. A robust resistance movement — in the form of activist teachers’ unions, parent and community groups, and a growing chorus of progressive educators — has persisted, as have on-the-ground practices rooted in a more holistic vision of education. The human lives and communities that make up public schools have not, ultimately, been successfully replaced by corporate-driven policies and data points, but the toll has been profound. Administrators and teachers have been forced to spend more time administering poorly designed tests and parsing data than exploring ideas and building healthy communities. Support staff and programming have been underfunded at the same time that the problems students come to school with have become more and more dire. Educators have reported feeling less able to reach their students in meaningful ways, and over time, the material and social conditions in all but the most affluent public districts have continued to deteriorate.

School employees on the ground have for years been sounding alarms about overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, a deficit of supplies and insufficient support services. Instead of addressing these glaring problems, research shows that money has been poured into surveillance, security and data collection — also a hallmark of neoliberal governance and a trend that has ballooned with the rise in mass school shootings. As has become particularly clear in schools serving Black, Brown and low-income students, money that goes to policing cannot go toward support services, and schools that exist in a culture of surveillance and discipline cannot function as healthy communities.

Despite resistance, education policy has continued to be viewed largely through the same distorted economic lens for decades. Concerns for children’s well-being have been couched in business-laden terms and practices: teachers are evaluated by “value-added measures,” students become “college and career ready,” school leaders are being trained to be “CEOs,” schools are managed as stock-market style “portfolio districts,” and above all, “data” rules.

In the wake of the pandemic, the panic over education loss has been similarly framed in terms of the economy, and arguments that focus on racial disparities. The loudest arguments for school reopening are often framed in terms of race, class and purported social justice. Black, Brown and low-income students are being the most hurt by the lack of in-person schooling, the argument goes, falling ever further behind in their education — and by extension, their life trajectory. Coupled with inequities in quality of health care and access to support resources, these students are being exponentially hurt by school closures and by the pandemic. Racial disparities have been used as a rallying cry to reopen schools before the pandemic is under control, and have bolstered arguments for more data-gathering to closely track academic losses. Yet, as scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in a recent New Yorker article, “no one needs to invent a new metric to discover that, during the worst crisis in modern American history, students might be falling behind. It stands to reason that those students who were already the victims of the maldistribution of wealth and resources that mars the entire enterprise of public education in the United States would fall behind even more.”

Some studies have gone as far as to project lifetime losses in earning between whites and non-whites as a result of remote learning. Also noting greater losses for non-white children, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a report in September 2020 arguing that COVID-19 school closures could cause nations “1.5% lower GDP throughout the remainder of the century” and that these “losses will be permanent unless the schools return to better performance levels than those in 2019.”

While in fact Black, Latinx and low-income children are undoubtedly bearing greater costs during the pandemic than their white and affluent counterparts, the push for a return to in-person schooling at the height of a pandemic fails to account for the underlying causes of racial and economic inequities in U.S. society, and in education in particular. It has also been documented that some students of color are actually benefiting from remote schooling, given a chance to learn with fewer pressures from a system that was not designed to serve them. An understanding of the larger context of educational inequities, and of the myriad ways the inequalities translate on-the-ground in actual schools and classrooms should be crucial to any decisions we make during and after the pandemic. It is also essential that we not see school closures as the cause of these inequities. The economy we’ve built and the systems we’ve shaped in its image have all but ensured these conditions in the face of a public health crisis. The push to reopen schools before we really know if it is safe to do so is 100 percent about saving that very economy, and getting us all back as quickly as possible to a system that actually wrought many of our social problems to begin with. The panicked rhetoric about children “falling behind” is about a desire to maintain the broken, inequitable status quo, not a desire for true social and economic equity.

Perhaps this is why a much higher number of Black families — who are more likely to have experienced the ravages of corporate education reform — are opting for remote schooling until school buildings are proven safe. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor also points out the push for school reopening in the name of equity “rings hollow,” and that it actually perpetuates white educational privilege: “Pushing for schools to re-open even as the majority of Black and Latinx parents opt for remote learning will only undermine remote instruction, all while catering to the disproportionate number of white students who show up in person.” The pushback from teacher and school-employee unions also reflects a crucial level of lived experience, in that people working on-the-ground in schools understand in very real ways the many reasons that school reopening protocols are likely to go wrong.

It has been clear from the beginning that the best way to stop the spread of the virus is for workers and families to stay home, yet U.S. politicians and business leaders have been unwilling to come close to the kinds of support that many other nations have provided to enable this to happen. The pandemic has laid bare our absolute subservience to an economy that has been designed to work against the majority of us.

There is an even greater risk, post-pandemic, of private interests capitalizing on a beleaguered school system, a phenomenon writer Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” which we can already see happening as tech companies and online schools swoop in to profit from the mess of public schooling gone remote. It is more essential than ever that we now bolster our public sector, and dismantle the corporate education reforms that have brought such damage to our public schools. When it comes to debates about school reopening, we should take our lead from the professionals who work in education day in and day out with children, not from business people or politicians who are beholden to them.

Even more, we should use this as an opportunity to grow social reconstructionist, critical and democratic aims of education. Public schools are “essential” places — despite the beating they continue to take — in that they are one of only a few places in U.S. society that have the potential to provide a forum for an open exchange of ideas between people of different backgrounds, and a forum for collectively exploring and countering the most pressing problems of our times. It is hard to imagine a time riper than now for the kind of emancipatory vision of education championed by Paulo Freire and other critical educators: an education that could truly liberate all of us from entrenched inequalities and suffering. In the past year alone that schools have been disrupted, students have witnessed: an unchecked pandemic kill over 500,000 people in the United States; the worst fire season in U.S. history ravage the West; the greatest call for racial justice since the civil rights movement; an attempted political coup and overthrow of the U.S. Congress; and an incapacitation of the power grid in Texas after a climate-change induced snowstorm. What could be a more powerful gift to give to our nation’s children than an education to help them understand these issues, and the tools to make a better world?