“Public education faces a crisis of epic proportions”. With this blunt statement, Laura Meckler titled an article published in the Washington Post last month. Meckler alluded to a number of indicators: enrollment declines, violent incidents and absenteeism increase, results worsen, teachers are lacking, and more and more parents go to schools to complain, sometimes angrily.
Really, among these factors it is not simple to distinguish causes and consequences. On the other hand, some are the result of recent circumstances, such as the pandemic, and others are due to problems that we could call structural, and that cannot be solved solely by school, such as social inequality or urban segregation. In any case, the reaction that many families have been leading in recent months is really positive, and it is generating a certain feeling of a “historic moment” and “awareness.”
Basically, the complaints refer to three aspects: the deficient response of many public schools in the face of the pandemic – and the causes of this response -, the perception that the ideology woke infiltrated classes without parental consent, and the complaint that not all is being done to improve academic performance, which has been in decline for years.
Pandemic, bureaucracy and unions
The closing of schools because of covid put the flexibility and operability of each school are put to the test. Certainly not all of them started from the same position. In general, those located in poorer areas had the important obstacle of many not having an electronic device or an adequate internet connection at hand to follow classes online. However, even comparing schools with a similar socioeconomic profile, public schools performed worse than, for example, charter schools, which are also free but are managed much more autonomously.
Something similar seems to have happened in Spain. According to a recent report on secondary school students in the Basque Country, where public schools experienced significantly greater academic stagnation than those of escuelas concertoes during the pandemic and post-pandemic , even after discounting the effect of the socioeconomic factor. [As escuelas concertadas são fruto de parceria público-privadas na Espanha. (N. t.)]
However, the main reason for complaint among disaffected American families has more to do with the excessive length of the remote education period than with their consciences. In fact, many families consider that the unions and public school teachers’ associations, by demanding unrealistic safety conditions for back to school, put their own interests above those of the students.
In some cases, only the pressure of parents managed to bring the return of face-to-face classes forward.
On the other hand, they complain about the excessive bureaucratization of the public network have hampered the development of initiatives in schools that could have reacted with greater readiness.
Another source of discontent among many parents in the public network is the indoctrination in the ideology woke that, in their opinion, would be receiving the their children.
The subject is quite controversial in itself: anyone who thinks like this considers that they are violating their fundamental right to educate their children according to their own values; while, on the other hand, these families are accused of hindering the school’s duty to foster students’ critical sense, and some conservative groups are pointed out as the true creators of the wave of protests.
But, in addition to the dialectical battle, there were unmeasured actions by both parties, which found even more confrontation. Some parents tried to boycott – and sometimes succeeded – meetings of different educational authorities. In some cases, arrests were made for threatening behavior.
Neither did the other party contribute to calm the debate. On the contrary. Late last year, a letter from the National Association of School Boards to President Biden was leaked in which the term “domestic terrorism” was used to refer to the aggressive behavior of some families. On the other hand, in the last elections in the state of Virginia, the Democratic candidate declared that parents “should not tell schools what they should teach”, referring to content related to ideology woke. This sentence, which recalls that of the former Minister of Education of Spain (“children do not belong to their parents”), warmed the spirits of many families and, according to analysts, was decisive for this candidate to end up losing the elections in a territory traditionally democratic.
Thus, the confrontation by ideology woke or other content related to education in values has become increasingly sour. Therefore, attempts at conciliation are welcome. For example, that of a public school teacher in Arizona, who, in a recent article, defended the so-called “curriculum transparency laws”, which oblige teachers to publish the contents given in the classroom. According to her, the school must encourage critical thinking in students, and this is only possible by exposing them to different, sometimes rival, theories. Nevertheless, “in the face of the growing polarization of lesson plans, and the growing alarm of parents – often with good reason – about the content, it is up to us to put some kind of safeguard in these debates. Parents deserve to know what their children listen to, discuss and learn at school, where they spend at least half their day, and often more than half.”
In the research on the different performance of public and Basque concerted schools during the pandemic, the authors formulated three possible causes for the phenomenon: the greater sense of urgency of the latter, a consequence of the need to correspond to the expenses made by the families; their greater degree of autonomy, which allowed them to respond more quickly; and have more preparation regarding the use of digital tools.
While the first two factors refer to the internal functioning of the school – even if they are somehow conditioned by external elements –, the third points out the difference in resources between some schools and others. In the United States, there is a great debate around the funding of public schools, which many consider insufficient, and which manifests itself mainly in the shortage of teachers.
In fact, as commented some analysts, there are differences in resources not only between public and private schools, but also within the public ones. In part, the gap is explained by urban segregation. The majority of funding in public schools comes from taxes collected at the local level, and indeed from property fees. This means that those located in wealthy neighborhoods, where more is collected, enjoy more resources, even though the funds provided by state and federal authorities soon try to compensate for inequalities. To alleviate the problem, in recent decades several reforms have been approved in the financing mechanism, but their effects have not yet balanced the accounts, and the successive economic crises of recent years have emptied government coffers.
Nevertheless, other experts point out that the blame for poor performance and the worsening of the school climate in public schools is not only, not even mostly, to the economic factor.
In this sense, there was talk of the need to improve the discipline and cultivate an environment of high academic expectations, and for that to reinforce the teacher’s authority; to make hiring and firing new teachers more flexible, in the style of charter schools; to consolidate a stable curriculum focused on fundamental skills; and, indeed, to increase the time devoted to language instruction, the Achilles heel of disadvantaged students. It is also proposed to increase the freedom of parents to choose the school, or to oblige schools to offer transparent data that allow knowing the relative performance – according to previous years – of each one, as well as of each teacher.
Some of these measures, which are considered anathema by some of the left and the teachers’ unions, were called for a few weeks ago by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think[As escuelas concertadas são fruto de parceria público-privadas na Espanha. (N. t.)] tank traditionally linked to the Democratic Party.
©2022 ACEPRENSA. Published with permission. Original in Spanish.