The latest pawn being played by political special interests to leverage their power amid a global pandemic reaping death and economic destruction on millions of Americans is none other than our schools. Both Republicans and Democrats have begun circling over the pandemic’s carnage, creating fear and taking every opportunity to persuade a weary American electorate of the righteousness of their platforms and candidates. Among the most powerful political players in this cynical effort are the teachers unions.
California already invests almost half its 2020 budget in schools that are in perpetual decline. Yet unions now demand more funding to “allow” kids to physically return to school. The pandemic has proven advantageous in leveraging the shutdown by prolonging its impact and extracting a litany of “social justice” demands, including cancellation of rent, defunding the police and passage of a new tax to pad, yes you guessed it, the education coffers.
Undoubtedly, legitimate health concerns exist for preventing a physical reopening of schools. Yet this angst over denying kids the right to file back into their brick-and-mortar schoolhouse in favor of going to school online might be our chance to reimagine education.
I’ve long advocated for innovation in how we provide education, expanding school choices to include magnets, charters, homeschooling and opportunity scholarships enabling kids trapped in chronically failing schools to exit. If education is the promissory note on the American Dream, this may be our opening to finally deliver.
But in order to get sober on education, we must first admit that we have a problem. The definition of insanity is doing the same failed action, expecting different results. For more than a century, we’ve trudged our children into the brick-and-mortar school model we know, but California’s data should prompt us to change.
Based on 2019 testing data , only 50.87% of California students met or exceeded state English standard proficiency levels — a mere 0.99% increase from the previous year. That means that half those kids we’re demanding be returned to physical schools are failing. In math, it’s even worse: only 39.73% met or exceeded math standards, a boost of 1.08% from the prior year. Minority children fared considerably worse.
Several school districts performed considerably poorer: In the Los Angeles Unified School District, only 43.9% met English standards; 33.47% in math. In the Santa Ana Unified School District, Orange County’s largest, only 31.62% of students met English standards; 25.09% in math.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals we are actually regressing: average reading scores for assessed students were lower in 2019 than 2017. Quite simply, the status quo hasn’t delivered. The only way to correct a market failure like this is to open up competition and encourage innovation.
Since we are currently being challenged to reimagine everything (e.g., policing), why not be bold and embrace public-private partnerships with California’s tech industry to reimagine education? We should seize the moment to innovate, unleashing the power of modern-day technology to envision a world-class education unlike anything we’ve seen.
Going virtual should not be scary. Our lives were already transitioning to being virtual. COVID merely expedited this trend. Long before the pandemic, online shopping was already replacing us driving to the mall or grocery store. Everything from sharing family photos, learning languages, buying cars, conducting business meetings, and hosting social events has gone online. Humans are highly adaptive creatures, and we have embraced virtual lifestyles.
If California has learned anything from being the tech capital of the world, it’s that if we are not innovating, we will get left behind.
So, maybe virtual schools are the next big innovation, if we let go of our fear.
Prior to COVID, parents were increasingly adopting online educational options, including homeschooling.
Online students report they are freed of social distractions in an independent study environment, and older students enjoy flexible schedules enabling them to both work and study. Many accelerate learning in collegiate dual enrollment programs.The National Coalition for Public School Options survey of almost 2,000 parents of online students found they viewed their childrens’ school work just as challenging as at their traditional school. Americans are ready to take this leap but lack a leader. Yet private and public colleges have provided us a pathway, having moved to online education and the offering of degrees with great success and affordability.
Perhaps the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Much of the concern we felt in initially going virtual was the suddenness of last spring’s transition to online and letting go of what we’ve always known. Certainly, there’s a divergence of opinions on what the future of education should look like for the 55 million U.S. K-12 school children. Brick-and-mortar schools will still exist.
But, rather than fighting virtual schooling, it behooves us to embrace a new frontier of schooling, focusing on ensuring educational outcomes greater than what we’ve experienced in the brick-and-mortar monopoly. Instead of focusing on a one-size-fits-all plan that demands going back to what we’ve always poorly done, now is the time to soar into a new vision of education in the time of coronavirus.
Gloria Romero previously served as Democratic majority leader in the California Senate. @GloriaJRomero