Freedom for me, but not for thee

By Larry Sand
April 14, 2020

Temporary Los Angeles teacher union contract, inspired by COVID-19, liberates teachers, but parents and kids are still held captive, of course.

On Thursday, April 9th the Los Angeles Unified School District struck a distance-learning pact with the United Teachers of Los Angeles. The seat-of-the-pants labor agreement was necessitated by the closing of all district schools due to COVID-19. And the deal is an amazing one for teachers.

As I recently wrote, the regular union contract stipulates that the professional workday for a full-time regular employee “requires no fewer than eight hours of on-site and off-site work.” Yet the deal engineered by UTLA boss Alex Caputo-Pearl requires teachers to provide instruction and student support for just four hours per day and also to “host three office hours for students” every week. So instead of a 40-hour work week, teachers in L.A. only have to be available for 23 hours. Additionally, teachers can create their own work schedules “and not be required to teach classes using live video conferencing platforms.”

So teachers can do pretty much what they want, whenever they want, and neither the school district nor the union seem to be overly concerned about what, if anything, the children learn. But it is a very different story in private schools. For example, at Our Lady of Mercy High School, a Catholic school in Rochester, NY, not much has changed due to COVID-19. Sure, the kids don’t have to report to school, but their work schedules haven’t been altered. Focusing on ninth grader Molly Topa, Democrat & Chronicle reporter Justin Murphy writes that “her day begins at 7:53 a.m. on the dot – not when she rolls out of bed, or when she gets around to logging online – the same time she reported to school pre-virus.”

Murphy adds, “A survey of local private schools showed teachers and students logging into virtual ‘classrooms’ according to the same bell schedule they would follow at school. New curriculum is introduced and grades are recorded on assignments and exams. Even inherently communal activities like chorus and theater have been roughly replicated online.”

Why the divergence between the L.A. and Rochester schools? Private schools, you see, must please parents, or to put it bluntly, its paying customers. If a parent is unhappy, she can pull her kids out of their school and send them to another more to her liking. But unless parents can afford to pay directly for their child’s private education, they are stuck in frequently unionized schools where children are clearly not the first priority. Alex Caputo-Pearl and LAUSD are poster children for the latter. So it’s hardly surprising that, according to a recent national survey, 66 percent of private school enrolled teens report connecting with their teacher once or more daily, whereas just 31 percent of public school students do.

Cue the education establishment howling! They will insist that the disparity is due to the fact that more well-to-do parents send their kids to private schools, and that government schools get stuck with everyone else, notably the poor who don’t have computers or internet access. While there may be some truth to that, many districts have been buying computers and facilitating net access for the students who lack them.

But the best way to even the playing field would be to dissolve the government’s education monopoly. Very simply, states should offer education savings accounts to all parents. ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from government-run schools and receive public funds which are deposited into an authorized savings account with restricted, but multiple, uses. Textbooks, online programs, and tutors are just a few of the many allowed expenses covered by an ESA.

Most importantly, ESAs put parents in charge of their kids’ schooling. Wouldn’t you rather exercise control over your children’s educational experience instead of bureaucrats and union bosses like Alex Caputo-Pearl?

Opponents of ESAs perennially use ye olde siphon argument, which stipulates that essentially tax-payer dollars are mandated by God to go solely to government-run schools. And that public schools will be hurt by parental choice.

No worries! Just about every study ever done reveals that the private option not only doesn’t hurt public schools, but the students in the latter actually do better too because of the competition factor.

Most recently, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research examined how the massive scale-up of a Florida private school choice program affected public school students’ outcomes. It found that expansion of the program “produced modestly larger benefits for students attending public schools that had a larger initial degree of private school options, measured prior to the introduction of the voucher program.” As the program expanded, students attending the public schools most subject to competition from private schools saw their test scores rise while absenteeism and suspension rates fell. The effects were particularly pronounced for lower-income students.

So as teachers enjoy great latitude in Los Angeles, kids are stuck with less teacher time than ever. Once we get beyond the pandemic, our efforts must turn to breaking the government monopoly on education, the long-term effects of which will endure long after we find a vaccine for COVID-19.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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