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Biden’s school plan doubles down on same old failure

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As the coronavirus pandemic begins to recede and public schools reopen, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona boldly promises to “reimagine learning to make sure that we don’t go back to a system that had the same inequities that existed before the pandemic.” He is correct about the problems in public education systems — achievement has been stagnant for decades and achievement gaps between groups of students have been stubbornly persistent since the 1970s. Yet Cardona’s remedies increase taxpayer costs and double down on old failures. 

Certainly, public schools have enough money to “reimagine learning.” The Department of Education indicates that as of Feb. 28, no state had spent more than 26 percent of the $67.5 billion in COVID-19-related K-12 public education money Congress provided in 2020. Even so, last month Congress followed up with an additional $123 billion rescue plan for schools.

Unfortunately, this new cash promises more of the same of everything: more summer school, more counselors, more school nutritionists, smaller class sizes, and more programs for socio-emotional learning and other fads, funded within an alphabet soup of existing bureaucratic programs.

Before committing billions of dollars more to a failed model, the Biden administration and Congress should have consulted history. In the early days of public education, schools were small organizations controlled by and accountable to their local communities. Most principals still taught courses and, together with teachers and families, handled all of a child’s needs.

Then in the early 20th century, progressive school reformers embraced bureaucracy and scientific management, which represented the best of 1910 business thinking. To “professionalize” schooling, small, academically-oriented schools often run by women were merged into or replaced by large bureaucratic schools where male managers (principals) disproportionately bossed around female workers (teachers)

By its nature, bureaucracy means complexity. Progressive reformers brought industrial division of labor to education, turning schools into factories. Since the mid-20th century, and reinforced by federal law and funding streams, new schooling professions have evolved. The resulting division of labor often divides a single child in multiple ways between a teacher, a social worker, a counselor, a special education teacher, and an English as a Second Language teacher, with no one professional seeing the whole child.

Bureaucratization ballooned school staff. From 1990 to 2018, as one of us documents in “Back to the Staffing Surge” in EdChoice, while the number of public school students rose 23 percent, teachers increased by 32 percent, other school staff by 60 percent, and administrators to manage everyone else skyrocketed by 81 percent. Going farther back in time, from 1950 to 2006, the ratio of students to staff fell from 19.3 students per staffer to a mere 8 to 1 (see “President Obama and Education Reform”).

All this bureaucracy has had at least two negative effects. First, public school spending soared while teacher pay stagnated, leading teachers to seek advancement into the bureaucracy, where they get paid to boss around other teachers. Both economically and psychologically, bureaucracy has devalued teaching. Second, with all those staff members, public schools feel more bureaucratic and less personal, and teachers are doing more paperwork and meetings with other grownups and less mentoring of students and parents.

Yet educators such as Secretary Cardona, for all their good intentions, are too much a part of modern school bureaucracies to see the forest for the trees, too much a part of the system to fix it. 

Their federalized solution of more staffing and more bureaucracy has not worked. Spending more money to increase bureaucracy/paperwork/meetings has kept teacher pay stagnant and failed students for decades. Instead, states should follow the leads of Arizona, Florida and now West Virginia and let parents make decisions to find the best educational settings for their children through more school choice. Even without these state programs, more families were choosing homeschooling or small, low-cost hybrid homeschoolseven before the pandemic began.  

States should use their own money to replicate successful scholarship programs for a future where families have more say in their children’s education and stop creating a more expensive version of the past that left too many children behind. 

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and from 2015-20 served on his local school board.

Ben Scafidi is the director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University.

Tags Education Education reform Homeschooling hybrid homeschooling Miguel Cardona School choice

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