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American Public Schools, RIP


Many of the bizarre features of the pandemic response can be explained by industrial self-interest, graft, power lust, confusion, and so on. One feature does not have such an obvious explanation: the closure of public schools in some places for as long as two years. 

The extremely low-to-minimal risk to the kids was known from very early on. They could have stayed in school the entire time as they did in Sweden. Scared older teachers – realistically at very low risk – might have found substitutes. There were surely other workarounds besides utterly smashing education. 

What civilized society does this? None. 

It appears that school closures were just part of the mix of the panicked response. “Indoor and outdoor venues where groups of people congregate should be closed” said Trump’s sweeping and astonishing edict of March 16, 2020, and that included schools. Period.

What happened to the kids? They stayed at home and parents left work to oversee them. They pretended to learn as they were able but enrollment in the school system collapsed by 1.2 million nationwide. Some 26 percent declared themselves to be homeschooled. Private-school enrollment also grew by 4 percent, though it was limited by capacity restrictions, shortages of offerings, and the sheer expense (not everyone can afford to pay both taxes and tuition for school). 

But here is what is extremely strange. According to the Wall Street Journal, “an analysis of enrollment data conducted by Stanford University in collaboration with the Associated Press found that there were no records last school year for more than 240,000 school-age children living in 21 states and the District of Columbia, which provided recent enrollment details.”

How is this possible? “There’s this chunk that we just can’t explain,” said study author Professor Thomas S. Dee. 

The most likely explanation is rather obvious. Some parents might have picked up and moved out of the country. Many changed states of residency and just never got around to re-enrolling. Others just decided to drop out and not notify the school district, as they are supposed to else be declared truant. But after the utter chaos of the lockdown period, and the demand that if kids come back they have to be masked and even vaccinated, hundreds of thousands of families just decided to say: forget it. They don’t even trust the system enough to file a paper with the school district. 

How incredible: homeschooling until relatively recently existed in most places under a legal cloud and was widely put down by elite commentators, even as homeschool kids have so clearly outperformed everyone else in test scores and later achievements. And yet, nearly overnight, what was previously considered outlier behavior suddenly became the norm if not the mandate. 

I simply cannot believe that anyone planned for this to happen. What’s not clear is how the heck all of this was permitted to happen at all. 

It seems the least likely turn of events in the whole of American politics and culture. The American public school system was the first and most celebrated achievement of the Progressives in history. They came along and grew throughout the 1880s and were deployed as a measure to acculturate immigrants. The move to make school compulsory came about in the 1920s. The deal was completed in 1936 when government outlawed most jobs for kids under the age of 16. 

The institutionalization of public schooling as a norm was completed by World War II. It was heavily funded and heavily enforced, and remained the pride-and-joy of social reformers ever since. After that period of time, the plan for American kids was in place. Their job was to sit at a desk for 12-14 years. That’s all.

To be sure, there are some odd features of American public schooling that make it different from Commonwealth countries and other European states. The funding is mostly locally provided even today and drawn from property taxes. Therefore, enrollment is enforced on a geographic basis with tight school districts. The value and quality of the education one gets in schools is, in turn, reflected in home valuations. So, in effect, parents are paying tuition but not directly to the school but to the school district via property taxes. 

Funding for schools is allocated by enrollment numbers. If the students aren’t there, the funding dries up. This is creating a genuine crisis for schools around the country. 

In addition, in vast numbers of American schools, the publicly funded part only pays for the basics. If your kid is in sports, music, or some other club, that is funded by parents and their “booster clubs.” It is surprising just how much of what people consider the “high quality” part of American public schooling is in fact funded by a “pay-to-play” scheme. 

When the closures were ordered, all of this was shut down. But the taxes that paid for the education still had to be paid of course! And the money for booster clubs just sat in the bank as arts, sports, and other activities were flat-out banned. 

Once they reopened, everything had obviously changed. The schools are in shambles and nowhere near normal. Most districts report extreme shortages of teachers simply because so many just refused to go back. 

In addition, among those who remain:

  • 80% of educators indicate that burnout is a serious problem.
  • 55% of educators now indicate that they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.
  • 76% of educators feel student behavioral issues are a serious problem.
  • Only 10% of educators would strongly recommend the profession to a young adult.
  • Only 30% of teachers are satisfied with their current position.
  • 65% of educators agree the bureaucracy interferes with teaching.
  • 78% of teachers feel symptoms of stress and depression.

In addition, half of American school kids are a full year behind in educational goals, a fact which proves that remote education, especially during a political panic, was a tremendous flop. 

All of which is to say that the shutdowns have pretty well wrecked what was already a very fragile system. Let’s presume that no one at the top really intended to smash what was left of the American public school system. Proposition: all of this came about, and the closures perpetuated as long as they did, because the system was already on the verge of collapsing. 

Consider the decades of curriculum reforms that teachers face again and again. New books, new methods, new theories, new strategies, all hatched by “educational professionals” who are not in the classrooms and then enacted by politicians seeming to “do something” about the problem. These waves of reforms piled on top of each other and finally collapsed into a mechanized and industrialized classroom entirely devoted to teaching to the test, thus wiping out volition on the part of both teachers and students. 

Behavioral problems, too often addressed not through discipline but prescription drugs, are the result of extreme boredom and the growing refusal to sort students by aptitude. Everyone is just shoved into rooms, told what to learn, shuffled from year to year in the same pattern, move from subject to subject, regardless of interest or achievement, even as the curriculum has become alienated ever more from what the bourgeois once saw as being a quality education. 

It’s tragic to say but when the schools closed, it appears that there were vast numbers of stakeholders from teachers to administrators to students who quite simply breathed a sigh of relief: finally! When the pressure mounted to bring them back – parents needed a place to plant the kids so they could get back to work – the teachers’ unions decided to use the push to make more demands for salaries and benefits. 

Once parents got kids home and began to examine what they were actually being taught, school boards faced an amazing explosion of outrage. Thus began the populist uprising against Critical Race Theory. The mask mandates and then vaccine mandates only exacerbated the problem. 

The point is that none of this would have happened had the schools been healthy and functioning. The lockdowns were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. A dysfunctional system finally fell apart. That’s where we are today, and the replacement that is emerging is not something that comes from someone’s idea of “reform.” We’ve had more than enough of that. What’s emerging is spontaneous, cobbled together, partially the result of noncompliance, but in keeping with the always passionate desire on the part of parents that their children are well-educated. 

Homeschooling has become completely normal, and I personally know many businesspeople who are looking to start whole franchises of private schools with a greater emphasis on classical methods and content. Various religions are fully engaged to provide their own educational systems apart from the public ones, and on a more extensive basis than ever. 

It might not be obvious right now but in a few years, we could all look back and observe that March 2020 marked the beginning of the end of the great Progressive experiment in public education. Something else is emerging now. This is not a story that any responsible person would have scripted but the end result, and despite all the carnage along the way, might be a better overall system for the next generation of students, parents, and teachers. 

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  • Jeffrey A. Tucker

    Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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