School Choice as a COVID Solution

School Choice as a COVID Solution July 26, 2021

The stakes are high in return-to-school debates, because no matter what you do, there will be negative side effects.  Life is dangerous.  COVID-19 is dangerous, mitigation efforts bring dangers of their own, and let’s be honest: School’s been a mixed bag on the safety profile all along.

Whether it’s gun violence or curriculum choices or you-name-it, our solution to date has been to host bitter feuds over The One Best Policy.  It’s not just chasing after the wind, it’s going into pitched battle with your neighbors over what direction you wish the wind would blow.

It’s nonsense.  Resource-rich people can sidestep the side effects by moving to better districts, working the system to get one of the few exceptional slots in an alternative public school, enrolling in private school, or homeschooling.  Most parents and kids, meanwhile, just have to sit there and take it — no matter how poorly their betters have chosen for them.  It’s the law.  If you don’t send your child to the state-mandated school, and you can’t muster the means to fit into a legal evasion maneuver, you can lose your child over truancy charges.  

So yes: The fight is bitter.

COVID re-opening fights are extra-bitter because the stakeholders include parents, teachers, and administrators who were, previously, winning at gaming the school system.

They had the classrooms they wanted, or at least that they couldn’t bring themselves to leave.   (I’ve heard plenty of teachers on private forums describe teaching in horrible conditions as an inescapable tragedy: They know their pay and working environment are borderline-abusive, but they just can’t leave.  Variety of reasons for that.  It’s complicated.)  COVID threw in a game-changing variable, and so the rules of the game have to be renegotiated.

Everyone feels hostage.  For wealthy parents who have sunk huge sums into purchasing homes in the right school zone, a bad re-opening is a major loss. Moving a second time might not be feasible.  For resource-poor parents (you might be cash-poor but have the option to homeschool thanks to other advantages like spare time, energy, and talent), stuck is just plain stuck.

But here’s an idea: What if parents could, without having to move house, self-select their families into different approaches to pandemic safety?  Trade-offs must be made, and different children and different parents have different risks and benefits at play.

What if you had a right to choose where your child went to school?  A real right, not a mostly-mythical right only in practice available to the affluent.

And then? Different schools could take different approaches (and some with large, multi-building campuses might even take a variety of approaches within a single school), and parents could choose which set of risks and benefits was best suited to their family’s unique circumstances.

You’d still need to get teachers on board with their school’s approach, but at least you’d be working with a smaller pool of stakeholders (just the teachers and staff in a specific facility), and of course teachers aren’t required by law to report to the school for which their home is zoned, so they do already have a modicum of choice which parents and students do not.

No need to make this a scheme for subsidizing private schools (which risks causing tuition inflation anyhow). Simply say that every student is guaranteed admission at the public school for which they are zoned, but that their per-pupil funding can, instead, follow them to any other public school that will accept them.

Not complicated.

Not a cure-all, but I think it would help.

File:Mary McLeod Bethune with a Line of Girls from the School WDL4013.png

Photo: Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of students, via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

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