The coronavirus and rigid education policy

By Larry Sand
April 7, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, much of the Big-Ed/Big Union complex maintains its inflexibility.  

With U.S. schools closed, educators across the land are scrambling to figure out how to provide instruction to millions of students via computers. Granted, an immediate switch to distance learning is not easy for school districts, which by and large have been faithful to the calcified 200 year-old Prussian model of education. You know – a teacher trained in government-approved, specialized schools, standing in front of a class, obedient kids sitting in rows learning the curriculum passed down from on high, etc.

Considering that school districts had no prior experience with distance learning and no time to set up organized programs, some of them have done an admirable job. Others, however, have been resisting change either because of equity issues, general fear and loathing of doing anything different, or old-fashioned turf protection. The culprits come from both management and labor factions.

In Pennsylvania, the legislature and governor have signed off on SB 751, a bill that disallows virtual charter schools from receiving tuition payments for students who enrolled in them after March 13th. These payments will continue to be blocked for the remainder of the shutdown, which very well may be the entire school year.

In Berkeley, California’s most progressive city, they aren’t educating anyone online because of equity issues. Using Titanic-style logic (“Since we can’t save everyone on the Titanic, let’s make everyone stay on board and go down with the ship!”), district officials maintain that because not every student has a computer or access to the internet, no one should get educated. And this mentality has not only infected Berkeley. School districts in Kentucky, Washington state and elsewhere have succumbed to Titanic logic.

In Oregon, after the brick and mortar schools shut down on March 16th – with pressure from the state’s teachers union – the State Department of Education asserted that no students could enroll in or withdraw from any schools during the closure. As ridiculous as this is, it could have been worse. As The Wall Street Journal notes, “The state Department of Education originally contemplated closing down virtual public charters along with the brick-and-mortar schools. Even during a national crisis, unions would rather deprive students of an education than see their charter-school competitors succeed.”

In Los Angeles, United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl has been busy. On the UTLA website, he kvetches ad nauseum about the school district’s micromanagement during the crisis, and referring to L.A. Unified, uses the word “unreasonable” ten times. But at the same time, UTLA released a memo of understanding that demands (union-style) micromanagement. The MOU unreasonably limits the ways that teachers can connect with students, the amount of instructional time students get, the access that students and families have to teachers. For example, he insists that 4th and 5th grade teachers should spend no more than 2.5 hours daily with their students. But on page 32 of the dense 426-page union contract (talk about micromanagement!) it stipulates that the “professional workday of a full-time regular employee requires no fewer than eight hours of on-site and off-site work. Interestingly, the MOU does not specify what teachers are supposed to do with the rest of the hours they are being paid for. (In another cute move, the union pushed for and succeed in getting pay for substitute teachers during the school closure period…whether they are needed or not. In normal times subs only get paid when they work, but now even when not teaching, they are all guaranteed a paycheck based on the number of days they’ve worked since last August.)

On the national level, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has suggested that Congress should consider microgrants to help teachers with online learning, especially for disadvantaged students. The proposal would target kids whose schools have been closed for at least 30 days and are either eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or are enrolled in a special education program.

A spokesperson for DeVos said the grants could be used “to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Well, not if you are a union boss. An unhinged National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García shot back, “Betsy DeVos is shamefully using this global crisis to push her privatization agenda.”

García also claimed that DeVos’ scheme “would use ‘microgrants’ to siphon scarce public funding to private programs. I say, if it looks like a voucher program, acts like a voucher program, and sounds like a voucher program, there’s only one thing it can be.”

García urged NEA members to contact Congress and tell them to “reject Betsy DeVos’s latest plot to undermine public education.” She added “Students, parents, and educators need real help, not another attempt to take funding away from the most vulnerable students.”

The world has changed, perhaps permanently, for many of us due to COVID-19. But some school districts’ and many union leaders’ agendas remain unaffected by the virus. And all too frequently, those rigid agendas don’t have children’s best interests at heart.

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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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