What is gained politically by school closures?

A friend asked me last night what is gained politically by all these public school districts continuing with virtual classes for another academic year. Is it simply to sow chaos until the election? Sure, that’s probably an element of it.

As I suggested yesterday, however, this fight is mostly about money. Teachers unions regard school closures as a political hostage situation, and see an opportunity to increase spending on their membership across levels of government.

But it’s bigger than that.

If you look at the major school systems across the United States, they have one very big thing in common: they are in dire financial condition. Some places, like Chicago and Los Angeles, have been functionally insolvent for decades, relying on budget gimmicks and grants from other governments to cash flow. Their budgets are a shitshow every fiscal year.

Two factors have contributed to this situation. The first is school systems pay out obscene benefits to retired teachers. As life expectancy increases, many teachers will spend more time cumulatively collecting retirement benefits than earning a salary.

From a fiscal standpoint, each individual teacher’s retirement package, which often includes taxpayer-subsidized health care, is worth several million dollars in net present value. That’s how much you would have to save in your 401(k) to receive benefits equivalent to what a retired teacher receives. This means that governments essentially have to save up several million dollars for each one of them to pay out the benefits that have been accumulated. Think about this the next time you hear a teacher complain about how they are not paid enough. They may be working a second job during the summer, but taxpayers are funding decades of day drinking in Florida for each one.

Bracketing off the issue of whether it is fair that taxpayers should have to fund these arrangements, they work out fine only when the stock market is consistently performing (per usual, the people who hate Trump the most are also the most dependent on him succeeding) and when governments reliably make required contributions. Neither one of those circumstances have obtained in reality. We’ve had two major financial crashes in the span of 12 years and (mostly Democratic) lawmakers have used money that was slated to go to pensions for other, more immediately compelling political priorities.

Second, a crisis in spending has been coupled with white flight in major urban areas. (And, really, it’s not just white flight anymore. I have never met so many Black and Hispanic homeschoolers in my life.) Enrollment has been in decline in these places for many years now, as their academic performance has declined, as schools have become less safe, and classrooms more politically charged. Anyone in these areas who can afford to sends their child to a private school or they get them into a charter school. And where students go, funding follows.

Thus these districts have major structural problems on the spending side and on the revenue side of things. Teachers unions think the manufactured coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to fix both. They can demand more money from governments and hope that local mandates put their competition out of business simultaneously.

One thing that has totally been lost in political discourse is that local mandates that schools cannot reopen apply to private schools too. Even if private schools want to open, they largely cannot. Particularly for religious schools, this presents a major financial and existential question. Religious schools are generally marginal from a financial perspective in a normal year, relying on big-ticket fundraisers to continue as a going concern in addition to tuition. Some schools also admit many kids on scholarships. And then there’s the question of whether they still have a “brand” with the community after being closed across two academic years.

There are plenty of parents who will accept a “free” education of fiddle-fucking around on Zoom and doing ad hoc worksheets over the effort of moving their child into an alternative. But there are not a lot of parents who will pay thousands of dollars in tuition for that.

From an education standpoint, it is not a given that distance learning will have a detrimental impact on a student’s education. It is better for any child to have individualized attention from an adult that is genuinely interested in their progress, every time, hands-down. But not all distance learning programs are created equal. Some states made investments in distance learning long before the coronavirus, and they have top-notch lectures and materials ready to go. In other places, these programs were designed on the fly, and they for the most part aren’t even well aligned with academic standards.

What your child experiences completely depends on where they attend school. Chances are, if they go to a bad school or do not have parents who are supplying them with technology and supplementary content, for all practical purposes, they have not been receiving an education at all. Many private schools never anticipated doing classes remotely, whereas some public districts have operated a virtual school for a long time.

I cannot see a way in which this nonsense does not backfire on public schools and the Democratic Party. But I also don’t care. The past few months have been one element in their long march into oblivion for ordinary Americans. I don’t know a single person on either side of the spectrum right now who thinks school districts have their kid’s well-being in mind. Not a single one. I can’t even read a book in the park without strangers coming up to me to ask about homeschooling.

That’s quite an accomplishment for the political fixers, and I don’t think parents will forget it by November.

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