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COVID-19 changed learning, but obstructionist politics of education remain

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About a week after her state’s sudden COVID-19 pandemic shutdown orders sent everyone home and K-12 schools online, a friend sent me this text message: 

“Words I never thought I would say as a teacher, all on Zoom today: Put your shirt on; Get the lizard off your head; You have pet squirrels in your house?”

If only the barriers to new, creative educational opportunities were as easy to exterminate as lizards and squirrels. Instead, during an unprecedented time of need for alternative learning structures, bureaucrats appear to be worrying more about funding and maintaining the status quo in government-run schools than allowing families to pursue temporary new education platforms.

Few would argue that most public schools are designed solely for brick and mortar, in-person learning and thus have no prayer of effectively shifting gears to accommodate a shutdown of classes.

Then there’s morale. Aside from logistics, a sudden transition to distance learning puts a great deal of added pressure on students, teachers and parents to keep up with education mandates.

To its credit, the U.S. Department of Education sympathized with these additional strains and relaxed regulations dealing with standardized testing guidelines and other coursework requirements. This pause in oversight was a golden opportunity for families looking for creative new ways to plug the gap between traditional government-funded schools and a well-rounded education.

The autonomy afforded by this pause initially paid off. In the early weeks of the COVID-19 shutdowns, some virtual charter schools and online homeschooling programs provided free curricula and instruction to families and displaced teachers across the nation.  

Indeed, leaders in some states recognized their education infrastructures simply lacked the experience and technology to suddenly pivot to distance learning and initially embraced outside models. 

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown recognized the potential disruption for students amid the public schools’ disorganization and included virtual charter schools in the state’s new guidelines for distance learning. The move proved to be so effective that the state’s 19 virtual public charter schools — with their pre-pandemic enrollment already at 14,000 children — were besieged with thousands of displaced students seeking transfers within days of Brown’s mid-March shutdown order.

That was too effective for Oregon’s public teachers unions, which subsequently pressured the Oregon Department of Education to stop allowing transfers on March 27 — just 10 days after the shutdown announcement. Oregon Connections Academy alone reportedly had to turn away 1,600 displaced students.  

Ironically, virtual charter schools are the very definition of social distancing, being exclusively online. Yet, even in these extenuating circumstances, education politics continue.

The nonsensical, protectionist response from unions and education bureaucrats isn’t exclusive to Oregon. School officials in California and Pennsylvania also have moved to restrict virtual charter enrollment.

In public education, money always follows the student; hence, the decades-long battles waged by teachers’ unions and education officials to tie students to a ZIP code. An uptick in virtual charter school enrollment isn’t just a disruption in education delivery; it’s an existential threat to future education dollars — a threat that also was recognized by the Department of Education when it allocated to states $3 billion in emergency education aid. The federal agency warned governors to give none of the aid to teachers unions, because their consistent bullying of alternative educational resources during the pandemic was inconsistent with the aid’s intent.

Rather than restricting access to different options, school officials should encourage any opportunities that would best serve our students and teachers, and empower freedom of choice, especially during times of uncertainty. 

COVID-19 has shown there is room to adapt and embrace education alternatives — and before it’s over, the pandemic may prove to change schooling forever. We can either do this gracefully or react with politically polarized anguish. We must support and applaud our educators. These are tough times, and the last thing we need is the politicization of our kids.

Allan Cogan conducts strategic research for Pacific Legal Foundation, which defends the individual liberty and constitutional rights of Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse.

Tags Charter school Distance education Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education Kate Brown

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