IWF has a whole division devoted to education-- the Education Freedom Center-- that is always happy to argue for privatizing education and removing government from the whole business. The center's head is Ginny Gentles, a Florida product who led the state's school choice programs, worked in George W. Bush's department of education, and runs IWF's "Students Over Systems." ("Fund students, not systems" is a genius way to say "Defund public schools.")
And today, she's testifying before the House Oversight and Accountability Select Subcommittee on Coronavirus Pandemic on the Consequences of School Closures, a House subcommittee that is totally devoted to getting a grasp of the real and complex issues behind the pandemic impact on schools and not at all one more attempt to air grievances and get some hits in against the teachers unions and public education.
The subcommittee is headed by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), one of the GOP reps who sued to overturn Pennsylvania's election results in 2020. Other witnesses include writer David Zweig, Tracy Beth Hoeg, and, as "minority witness," Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. So we know where this is headed.
Zweig's testimony and Hoeg's testimony both dance around the notion that closing schools might have been a bad call and Europe opened sooner and it's probably the fault of the AFT.
Let’s be clear: school closures were not a good or necessary response to the coronavirus, and closure decisions were not grounded in data. School district superintendents, school board members, and state leaders knew early on that children were extremely low risk, but many feared the political consequences of prioritizing open schools. They also knew that school closures were an ineffective strategy for preventing the spread of the virus. Schools stayed closed primarily because the teachers’ unions in our country have enormous political power and parents do not. As parents pleaded for open schools, services for our children with disabilities, and a response to the learning loss crisis created by prolonged closures, we found out just how little leverage we possess.
There's an awful lot of bullshit here. Children may well be low risk, but children have families. My twins are low risk; their medically frail grandparents are not. School leaders did not know shit, and Secretary DeVos was explicitly opposed to providing any sort of guidance at the beginning of this mess. As for parents--polls tell us repeatedly that the vast majority of parents (aka parents who don't make as living as political operatives) are quite happy with how their local district handled things.
As for the evil teachers union, let me summarize the national conversation that has been repeated incessantly:
Teachers: Remote teaching sucks, and we would love to go back just as soon as schools put some basic safety measures and protocols in place.
Districts: How about now?
Teachers: Have you put some basic safety measures and protocols in place?
Districts: Not really, no.
Teachers: Then we would rather not go back, even though working our asses off via remote is no fun at all.
Certain folks: See! See! The schools are closed because the evil teachers union is trying to keep them closed, because they want to get paid for doing nothing.
But Gentles has the usual thesis.
Irresponsible school district leaders endangered children academically, emotionally, and physically by closing and refusing to open schools, decisions that led to devastating learning loss, mental health issues, developmental delays, and persistent discipline challenges.
She is, as I type this, trotting out the thin-sliced baloney about months of learning lost, the mental health crisis that has been ongoing for over a decade, developmental delays as imagined by McKinsey, and the persistent discipline challenges that I don't think anyone will argue with.
And look-- I'm not here to reargue the pandemic response. My take is that people had to make big decisions with very little clear information or direction, that the situations varied wildly depending on local conditions, and all of the available choices were bad ones, and I believe the vast majority of folks were trying to make the best bad choice they could. And we will be living with a variety of consequences of the pandemic and the bad choices it required for a while. And anyone who says that the choices were obvious, certain and clear at any point and if we had just chosen the right way, everything would be hunky dory now, is just full of it.
But for people who are already anti-public school, the pandemic has turned into a golden opportunity to go after public education. Here's how Gentles is finishing up her testimony:
Parents and policymakers must hold school districts accountable for school closure decisions and COVID-era federal supplemental funding choices. School districts that were closed for extended periods should be investigated so that students with disabilities can receive compensatory services. District, state, and federal leaders that caved to political pressure from teachers unions should be questioned in order to avoid a similar scenario unfolding in the future. Superintendents that chose to direct millions in COVID-era federal funding to athletic fields rather than academic recovery should be required to report regularly on the academic progress of their students.
In addition, education bureaucrats, superintendents, and local and state leaders must acknowledge their mistakes and take drastic measures to address the learning loss and discipline crisis they caused. Districts should prioritize the students with the highest need and invest in intensive high-dosage tutoring and summer school programs with proven track records. Supplemental federal funds should be invested in phonics-based literacy instruction. States and districts should provide learning recovery microgrants to families, similar to COVID-era programs created in Oklahoma, Texas, and Idaho, and recently launched in Virginia, so parents can direct funding to the tutoring or enrichment options that best meet their child’s needs.
In other words, punish our favorite villains (unions, education establishment) and implement our favorite policies (phonics, vouchers) and through it all, keep hammering away at the awfulness of public ed, employing the Rufo doctrine--get to universal choice by sowing universal distrust of public schools.
This is the new COVID theater--grandstanding about the real problems of a real pandemic that resulted in real deaths and real disruption, but avoiding any useful discussion about any of it in favor of using it as a political tool. What does this help? Whom does this help?