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Social justice begins with open schools and school choice

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FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images
Instructor Chablis Torres (C) reads to children in a pre-school class, wearing masks and at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. 

We are all concerned about social and racial inequity. A better solution than defunding police and painting “Black Lives Matter” on streets is improving educational outcomes for students. Closing schools due to COVID-19 and opposing other options works against this objective.

According to Education Week, only Florida, Iowa, Texas, and Arkansas have ordered schools to reopen. Other states either let local officials decide or have ordered partial closures. Meanwhile, the nation’s three largest public school systems — New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago — remain largely remote.

Penalizing low-income children by systematically keeping schools closed is unjustified when the risk of spread is so minute. In a wide-ranging study conducted by faculty at Brown University, researchers found very low transmission rates inside the classroom, with infections occurring at significantly lower rates than previously thought to be the case in classroom settings. Internationally, Australia, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany have all reported negligible transmission of COVID-19 in school settings. Instead of closing down schools and keeping students out of the classroom, as is the case across much of the United States, European countries are prioritizing keeping schools open, despite an increase in cases in many European countries.

A recent article published in the Journal of Pediatrics finds that “school-aged children, are far less important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 transmission than adults” and that “serious consideration should be paid toward strategies that allow schools to remain open, even during periods of COVID-19 spread.” A separate Journal of Pediatrics article suggests that “COVID-19 school closures pose an imminent threat to child health and wellbeing, particularly for those living in poverty.”

Depriving the disproportionately poorer and minority children who are in public schools access to in-person education might be excusable if parents were allowed alternatives. Yet, Democratic elected officials, across all levels of government, support keeping schools closed, while opposing financial assistance so families can send their child to the private and parochial schools that are open.

The limiting of both in-person public school education and access to alternatives increases the social disparity that we should all be committed to decreasing, which is to say the effect of some COVID related educational policies will worsen disparities already present.

Racial disparities in lifetime achievement and outcomes present as early as elementary school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, shows a persistent gap in test scores between white and Black students. In 2019, white students in the fourth grade scored 27 points higher than their Black peers on the NAEP Reading exam and 25 points higher on the math portion.

“Because cognitive and noncognitive abilities are shaped early in the lifecycle, differences in these abilities are persistent, and both are crucial to social and economic success, gaps among income and racial groups begin early and persist,” say Heckman, Stixrud and Urzua of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

When schools closed this spring, Nat Malkus, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, found that only one-in-five schools were in a district that offered rigorous remote instructional programs, while programs offered in two-in-five schools were perfunctory — or minimal. His most recent report, titled “Reopening in the Shadow of COVID-19,” finds that only 35 percent of students in “high poverty” schools have returned in person, while 65 percent of students in “high minority” schools continue to only have remote instruction available. Overall, approximately 34 percent of schools nationwide are still fully remote. While remote access has improved for many students since the spring, remote learning should not be seen as an equitable substitute for in-person learning.

For the most vulnerable, closed schools render learning nearly impossible. The New York City Bar Association reports that most homeless shelters lack Wi-Fi connectivity and cell phone reception for NYC’s 114,000 homeless students and their families. A Los Angeles Times’ headline sums it up, “A generation left behind? Online learning cheats poor students…”.

Importantly, academic achievement correlates with incarceration rates. High school dropouts are three times more likely to be incarcerated than those with high school diplomas. Racial disparities are clear among the incarcerated.

With many public schools remaining closed or online, families are looking to private and parochial schools as an alternative. Yet, teachers’ unions and congressional Democrats oppose funding them.

Senate Republicans proposed $70 billion dollars to help elementary and secondary schools reopen safely, and $10 billion dollars for parents to send their children to a private school of their choice during the pandemic. The National Education Association called the proposal an “insult to the families that have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and to the many other families that are struggling to stay afloat.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) repeated these talking points almost verbatim.

For society to address systemic racism, the education system in which Black Americans consistently underperform whites must be considered. Postponing in-person instruction and preventing parents from seeking alternatives for in-person instruction is to systematically discriminate against Black Americans, who disproportionately attend public schools. If teachers’ unions and Democratic politicians wish to do more than give lip service and paint streets, then achieving social justice begins with open schools and enabling school choice.

Bill Cassidy is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Tags Bill Cassidy Coronavirus in-person education Nancy Pelosi online education

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