Unequal is even more Unequal
Life is not fair. We all know that. But the virus has made those disparities even more obvious. The vast majority of students in the United States attend public schools. Public schools by their nature are required to serve the public-with all the good news and challenging news that implies. So if you have a disability, practice a faith tradition, or no tradition at all, or if you have sexual identity issues, the public schools will accept you and provide an education for you. Private schools by their very private nature can exclude pretty much at will. So a private school may chose not to serve kids with disabilities. Or it may choose to serve a particular faith tradition and no other. It may take a “moral” stand against children who are homosexual or transgender and exclude those children. In a typical year, about 10% of our nation’s children attend private schools.
But this is not a typical year. Many public schools are doing virtual learning. Others are opening on a hybrid schedule with some students in the building and some virtual. Some schools have opened and then closed because of a virus outbreak.
Parents are addressing the virtual learning approach in differing ways. Some families are investing in pod groups where several families hire a teacher and set up 3-5 children of similar ages in a pod for learning. That takes money. Other families are looking into private schools that are opening with enhanced safety precautions. Private schools which had seen a decline in enrollment during the great recession that has to some extent continued were quick to jump on the bandwagon, extending application dates and openly advertising for families who did not want virtual learning. Surveys have found that higher income families are more concerned with a structured formal education program than they are afraid of the virus or hospitalization. The ability of a private school to cherry pick its students has upset teachers’ unions and public education advocates who are opposed to tax credits for private school tuition or scholarships for these reasons.
Parents ask why private schools can open safely and public schools cannot. There are multiple reasons. Most public schools are big and they can’t pivot to social distancing within the buildings. Public schools are also not nimble and they need to appease a teachers’ union before they can make major decisions. Public schools also answer to multiple publics, whereas private schools usually have less diverse populations and do not need to please as many different viewpoints.
Public schools are starting to notice that families are voting with their feet. A major public school system has seen enrollment for this school year drop by over 2000 students. Public schools are often funded based on a head count of students, lower enrollment means fewer dollars for the system. This past June the seniors graduated albeit without much of a ceremony. In September, there were not enough kindergarten children to replace the seniors who had graduated. Many of those kids went to private kindergarten rather than the public online option.
Children whose families can afford private education, live in an area where private schools are geographically close or who have fairly mainstream typical kids will have options that others do not.
Children are learning all of the many ways unequal has become more so during the pandemic.