Excerpt From Newsletter, It's The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine!, (Plague, Day 18, March 21, 2020)

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It’s The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine! 
Apt. 11D, 3/20/20

Hi all!

What I’ve witnessed in the past week is the absolute implosion of public education. Who knew that this 100-year old institution would falter so severely? I suppose that at this moment in time, schools are the least of our problems, but I’m still going to talk about them anyway. 

In the past week, more than half of all school districts in the country shut their doors. Some shut down entirely. Some are doing some sort of online education. But nobody knows for sure, because only one online education journal is keeping track. And this journal doesn’t even know which schools are shutting down entirely and which ones are attempting some sort online education. Nobody knows. Isn’t that weird? 

Or maybe it’s not weird. We have a system of hyper-local schools in this country, which is hopelessly inefficient and expensive. This is just one of the many problems with public education that is being exposed by this pandemic. 

Perhaps even more important than its job in the provision of learning and wisdom, our schools feed the nation’s poor. And as we’re discovering, it is also a system of childcare for just about everyone, regardless of income. When the school system collapses, children go hungry, and parents get fired from work. 

The other problem with our education system is that nobody is in charge of this mess. It’s all up to each town. So, each town is handling this crisis differently. A thousand different superintendents are coming up with a thousand different plans. And some of these plans royally suck. Some closed the schools for two weeks and formed a coherent plan. Others shut the schools for an afternoon — just a couple of hours really — to figure out how to put together an education plan for thousands of children. 

Some schools are having their teachers do online classes using programs like Zoom during the old classroom hours. Other schools are just putting up some worksheets on Google classrooms. None of them have a proper plan for how to deal with special education. And guess which school districts have the worst plans? Yes, the poor ones of course. So, by the end of this crisis, the kids in the richer schools will be just fine, and the kids in the poorer districts will be further behind. Surprised? Yeah, of course not. 

Some school districts are trying to pretend that parents are partners in all of this. Ha. Partners are usually consulted and paid for their time. Parents are pissed. I would be surprised if any school district is still maintaining this illusion of online education by the end of March.  

And the states seem to agree. Some, like Michigan, have said that none of this online stuff will count towards graduation or their 180-day requirements. Schools will have to educate kids during the summer to make up for lost time. In other states, the teachers’ unions will presumably have a meltdown about plans to teach in the summer, but we haven’t heard from the unions yet, so who knows? 

My guess is that summer school will happen for sure, because there’s no way that these inconsistent, half-baked online classes can be considered a proper education. The programs that rely on parents are especially problematic, because parents aren’t certified teachers, and the unions have made all sorts of laws about certification that can’t be undone easily. Between state constitutions and federal special education laws, schools will be in a bind. They will have to figure out how to make up these hours at a later date. 

The one hope with all this mess is that we are getting a better understanding of all the problems in society and government. The pandemic will shine like a black light on a crime scene and show us what we need to do better.  Maybe we should have a Universal Basic Income. Maybe workers in a gig economy need more protections. In terms of education, we are definitely going to need a much higher level of centralization and leadership than we have now. We are also going to have to separate schools from other social services; schools can’t wear too many hats. 

Here at Apt. 11D, my family is doing fine. We’re a little stir crazy. All this togetherness isn’t easy, especially with a semi-independent college kid in the mix. But we’re healthy, most importantly. 

This newsletter was always supposed to be a bi-monthly enterprise, but with the crisis, I’ll be here more often. I’ve got an op-ed coming out in the am tomorrow in USA Today. Look for it! 

Be well! Laura

11 thoughts on “Excerpt From Newsletter, It's The End of Public Education As We Know It, But I Feel Fine!, (Plague, Day 18, March 21, 2020)

  1. Laura wrote, “In terms of education, we are definitely going to need a much higher level of centralization and leadership than we have now.”

    That might make sense for the state level, but I hope we’re not talking about the feds. And even at the state level, different schools have different student populations with different home resources, so one-size-fits-all can’t work for different schools.

    (We just filled out a survey–or my husband did–for our private school where the school tech guy was querying parents on what kind of technical resources kids have at home. Those are really important questions to ask before launching a home-education program!)

    Something else that comes to mind is that there are in fact a lot of existing public online education programs, as well as 2 or 3-day (?) schools that do a mix of classroom and home instruction. 3-day schools are getting to be a thing in the private school world, but I believe they also exist in charter education. There are also public school online curricula intended for use by homeschoolers.

    So, it wasn’t actually necessary for everybody to create a new system from scratch. There are existing platforms. Scale and the internet access are daunting issues, but content shouldn’t have been a problem.


    1. Part of the problem with online teaching is that it works for some people, but others (teachers and students alike) really hate it. I’m fine teaching some courses online (teaching content online is better than teaching skills), but I do miss the classroom a lot. Many teachers, I think, are wannabe performers. I love the experience of each class. It’s like storytelling, its own little episode of a semester-long tv show. And I miss that with online.


  2. Wendy said, “Part of the problem with online teaching is that it works for some people, but others (teachers and students alike) really hate it.”


    I’ve offered one of our kids the option of continuing music lessons with her teacher online and she’s really creeped out by the idea of doing a webcam to do lessons.


      1. Why would you think it’s in the state constitution? A quick check shows it’s code in Iowa, NJ, and virtually everywhere.


      2. Tasha said, “Why would you think it’s in the state constitution? A quick check shows it’s code in Iowa, NJ, and virtually everywhere.”

        Also, if it’s not possible, it’s not possible.


      3. I believe Laura’s point here is that most state constitutions have language requiring an effective/adequate/quality education. That constitutional language has commonly been translated in code as mandating 180 days of school. So yes – code puts it at 180 days. But if someone sues a district over what goes down here, districts may be in a tough position. If we’ve been doing 180 days for years and years, then courts may be inclined to see that as tied the constitutional right to an education. How does a quality education suddenly go from 180 to 150 or less? It will be hard for states to argue – well, we’re still meeting our constitutional requirement, we can just do it in 150 days. Constitutional rights don’t and shouldn’t go away in a pandemic.


      4. Shannon said, “Constitutional rights don’t and shouldn’t go away in a pandemic.”

        If it’s not physically and reasonably possible, it’s not a right.

        You could give me a “right” to toilet paper, but if there’s no toilet paper, I don’t get any toilet paper.


  3. We’ve had litigation around the interpretation of our constitutional mandate for public education, which is quite beautiful: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” The litigation was on the adequacy of state funding (the majority of WA K-12 funding comes centralized from the state, on a per student basis). The main litigation is the McCleary case, which was initiated in 2007. The last decision, from the WA Supreme court came out in 2018 (and was an inadequate acceptance of a revision of the funding guidelines that, mostly, prevented local jurisdictions from raising more money, to redefine “ample” based on the statewide number). The McCleary children were in college when the last decision came out. The case did not benefit them, even if it had benefited the state.

    I do not think litigation in WA state will result in fixing the 180 day waiver for this year (which our governor has waived). It will be tied up in court. However, I do think our state leaders want to provide the education that they can, given other constraints. I believe there will be a negotiated solution (followed by litigation, which may have an affect on the next time we have a pandemic).


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