News: CJ Exclusives

Biden and Cooper face political crisis that could ultimately transform education

Slow school reopening, dropping enrollment, and union influence on health policy may mean new energy for the school choice movement

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt speaks to the Soluciones con LIBRE gathering in Raleigh on April 20. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt speaks to the Soluciones con LIBRE gathering in Raleigh on April 20. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

As schools begin to reopen, more than a year after “two weeks to stop the spread” campaigns shuttered classrooms, newly released documents indicate the American Federation of Teachers union authored pieces of the pandemic health guidance that came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as it relates to schools.

The documents are in the form of emails between AFT lobbyists and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and her office. The emails show suggested language from the teacher union was placed almost verbatim in the health operational strategy guidelines released in February. The guidelines were used to justify continued shutdown of schools, mostly in states with Democrat governors. The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Americans for Public Trust and published in the New York Post

The revelation comes this week as President Biden downplays support for fully reopening schools. He told NBC this week that “based on the science and the (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), they should probably all be open.”  An ad campaign by Club for Growth criticizing Biden’s response to the school closure crisis is expected to begin airing next week. Last summer, the organization called for Emergency Parental Choice Scholarship grants that would have helped parents fund an alternative academic environment for their child if their school closed.

Biden’s Education secretary, Miguel Cardona, has had similar ambiguity while still trying to acknowledge the damage fear and school closures did to a generation of Americans, particularly to minority students.

“The majority of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students in elementary school are still learning fully remotely, compared to just 24% of white students,” said Cardona in comments this week from meetings in Atlanta. “Even in schools where students were offered full time in person instruction, 22% of Hispanic students, 27% of Black students, and a full 42% of Asian students are still enrolled in remote learning.”

Meantime in North Carolina, students in the state’s two largest counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, just went back to school in April for in-person, full time learning. More than 63,000 students are largely unaccounted for compared to last year’s enrollment numbers and are thought to have chosen to move to private school, homeschool, or to simply drop out.  Charter school numbers climbed in the 2020-21 school year by more than 8,000 students. The Average Daily Membership in North Carolina, which is a count of all students receiving public education by county and state, decreased by 4.4% percent during school closures. This is five times the largest previously recorded drop in ADM. The largest drop in enrollment was in kindergarten (down 17 %), fifth grade (down 7.5 %), and 11th grade (down 7.3 %).

With numbers still rolling in on the damage of school closures, the heavy lift gets underway in North Carolina to assess remote school and try to bring kids back up to speed. The Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Catherine Truitt met recently with leaders of the LIBRE Initiative, a national organization working with state school leaders on the effects closed classrooms have had, particularly on the Latino community.

“We have a lot of challenges in our state today,” Truitt said to the LIBRE Initiative and partner organizations. “The largest challenge I submit to you is the fact that 67% of eight- graders in North Carolina do not read or do math proficiently when they start high school. That, my friends, is what I would consider the largest civil rights crisis of our century. It is unacceptable in this state and in this country.”

Truitt made the comments in a gathering on top of a downtown Raleigh office building just a few blocks from the state Capitol at the Soluciones con LIBRE series, an event the group says seeks freedom-minded policy solutions.

“Latinos, like all Americans, understand the importance of quality education opportunities and options in order to provide a better future for our students,” said Richard Bethencourt, The LIBRE Initiative North Carolina’s Grassroots Engagement Director.

The American Rescue Plan has already distributed more about $81 million to states of the $130 billion in the federal spending bill. To access $41 million more schools are required to present a reopening plan. Some $10 million will go to on-campus virus testing.

“There is an incredible amount of federal money coming into states right now,” said Truitt at the LIBRE Initiative event. “Not all states are like North Carolina with a strong rainy-day fund, tax base, and good conservative economic principles. There are many states and cities that are in need of a bailout, and that’s exactly what the Biden administration is doing right now. However, North Carolina will still receive its share of the American Rescue Plan which, for North Carolina public schools, is billions of dollars. I am currently working alongside my team as well as those in the General Assembly, to determine the best way to use these dollars to support struggling schools.”

With about 478 chronically underperforming schools across the state and a more engaged parent population, school choice among minority families is gaining steam. The move to widespread remote learning among traditional public schools may have been under pressure from teacher unions, but the beneficiary could end up being the school choice movement.

Enrollment at private schools, charter and home schooling grew during this year, according to the United States Census. Nationally, more than 11% of families reported that they were homeschooling outside of public or private school systems, double the number reported last school year. North Carolina saw a 4.4% increase. Among families that identified as black or African American, that rate was five times greater nationally during this school year, compared to last. Latino families did not report an increase in the rate of homeschooling this year.

“I do believe that we are on the cusp of seeing something very different in public education, said Truitt. “Let me be very clear. I am a proponent of public schools. I am also a proponent of school choice and they do not need to be mutually exclusive. Those two things can coincide because I am a proponent of children. What is right for one child is not necessarily right for another child.”

The LIBRE Initiative agrees, advocating for allowing parents to enroll their child in their choice of school, promoting growth in charter schools, and increasing the variety of experiences outside the classroom for which a student can earn school credit.

“We look forward to continuing to work together to improve education opportunities in North Carolina, so all students can realize their full potential,” said Bethencourt.