In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our schools have gone in a variety of directions. Some public-school districts that shut down last spring have never reopened for in-person learning to any significant degree. Others have welcomed at least their younger students back to school, as have most charter and private schools.
I think the latter group got it right. Online learning has its place. But as delivered over the past year to large masses of students, without sufficient preparation or support by teachers untrained in its best practices, virtual instruction has been largely a bust.
Moreover, the best-available evidence suggests that the risk of COVID spread in schools is minimal, particularly when schools follow basic protection protocols. Children just don’t seem to contract or transmit the virus to the same degree that adults do. As a recent study of North Carolina schools by Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill researchers concluded, “within-school infections were extremely rare.”
However, rather than relitigate this issue, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of our education system’s reaction to the pandemic. Because North Carolina had a rich and expanding array of school choices going into the crisis, North Carolina families have been better served than those of many other states.
If parents of school-aged children deemed it unacceptable to take even the miniscule risk that their children might catch or carry home the virus, they were free to continue virtual learning in every school district in the state, regardless of what the “default” position of that district became. Some North Carolinians will never let their children enter a school, preschool, restaurant, store, or community center until widespread vaccination confers herd immunity. I don’t agree with their risk calculation, but they have both the right and the means to act on it.
On the other hand, a fair number of parents with different risk calculations — ones informed by the disastrous consequences that would flow from losing their jobs — had other options to pursue. Many charter and private schools have been flooded with requests. Homeschooling vendors and support groups have, too.
Across our state, enterprising parents and educators have also formed “learning pods” so that students shut out of their school buildings could get help with their online studies. A parent skilled at tutoring children in algebra, for example, might help pupils from multiple households in exchange for other educational or child-care help.
While North Carolinians were fortunate to have more school choice than the national average, far too many parents were left holding the bag. Even as we move into the spring semester, many are still holding it. And it’s still empty.
The General Assembly and other state policymakers should see this challenging experience as a learning opportunity. The more options, the better. The more options, the more likely it is that families will be able to find the educational arrangements that best fits their needs and circumstances.
Does advocating more parental choice in education mean that I disdain district-run public schools? Hardly. I appreciate the many fine educators who work in them, as my parents did for most of their respective careers. Millions of North Carolinians cherish their local schools. They want to see them improved, not destroyed.
Parental-choice initiatives advance that goal, too. When schools must compete to attract and retain students, their offerings generally get better, as do their outcomes. Empirical research isn’t unanimous in support of this effect — that’s not how academic research works — but well-constructed studies have linked higher school competition to higher student performance for decades.
In a recent paper published in the journal Applied Economics, three professors delved deeply into the case of Mississippi. They found that in communities with higher concentrations of private schools with religious affiliations, in particular, public schools tend respond in ways that boost learning. The authors concluded that “policymakers should consider competition-based school reform policies to increase public-school outcomes.”
I think the COVID experience will end up changing our education system for good, in both senses of the term.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.