When it comes to our schools, I find it very odd whenever I see the President’s critics demanding that he assert more authority in areas where the executive branch doesn’t really have power.
On the one hand, you have people screeching about the existence of federal “troops” in cities to combat violent protesters. It’s bad and awful and authoritarian and how dare he?
On the other hand, you have those same people demanding that he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos take a firm hold of America’s education system and force them all to stay closed (sure, they say they want “a plan” but to them “a plan” is “don’t open the schools at all”).
Constitutionally speaking, there is no power in the federal government at all to command local schools to do anything. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t address education at all. The existence of the Department of Education is a modern invention and it is forbidden by law to force policy across all schools in the United States. That is why you don’t see a national curriculum, and why you don’t see the Department of Education really doing much more than offering guidelines.
More importantly, though, is that you cannot force all school systems to respond to the novel coronavirus the same way because not all state and local school systems are in areas that are affected exactly the same way. Some places are not seeing a whole lot of spread and are more than likely very safe to open. Others are heavily impacted and probably should remain virtual for the time being.
That brings me to a piece in The Atlantic by one of my favorite people of all time, Dave Grohl.
Grohl wrote an essay for the magazine in defense of teachers, and lays out an argument that deals with the question of “How does reopening our schools affect not just our students, but our teachers as well?” It is with a heavy heart, however, that I have to disagree with Grohl because he falls into the same trap most others do when it comes to what the federal government can and can’t do when it comes to our schools.
Remote learning is an inconvenient and hopefully temporary solution. But as much as Donald Trump’s conductor-less orchestra would love to see the country prematurely open schools in the name of rosy optics (ask a science teacher what they think about White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s comment that “science should not stand in the way”), it would be foolish to do so at the expense of our children, teachers, and schools.
Every teacher has a “plan.” Don’t they deserve one too? My mother had to come up with three separate lesson plans every single day (public speaking, AP English, and English 10), because that’s what teachers do: They provide you with the necessary tools to survive. Who is providing them with a set of their own? America’s teachers are caught in a trap, set by indecisive and conflicting sectors of failed leadership that have never been in their position and can’t possibly relate to the unique challenges they face.
I feel a lot of what Grohl is saying in the essay, a lot of which I simply couldn’t copy and paste here, and I very much agree with his views that the resources for students simply aren’t there. But that is not something that can be fixed at the federal level, either. The United States government gives out a lot of money for education, and state and local school districts likewise raise a lot more from their tax base.
In fact, they raise a hell of a lot of money, but it rarely sees the classroom. Why is that? Administrative bloat, bureaucratic red tape, and good old fashioned government contracts. Our school systems would prefer to spend their money on the next big thing rather than get the money into the hands of their schools to buy the resources they really need — like updated textbooks, enough computers for students to be able to work on, etc.
The U.S. Department of Education, many conservatives argue, shouldn’t exist. And on some days, even as a teacher, I agree. But what I don’t believe in is the idea that the federal government can force all school systems across the country to do the exact same thing. For one thing, it’s not feasible to expect everyone’s needs to be exactly the same. For another, it’s a state’s responsibility to handle.
I do understand the idea that we have to keep both our teachers and our students safe. I appreciate it, even, and I appreciate the respect that Grohl has for teachers. But there are better ways to handle it than to leave it up to the federal government.
The ideal situation is that districts essentially treat all public schools like charter or private schools: The schools would run themselves and determine their course of action based on their student AND teacher populations’ needs, and they would get support as needed from the district. The more realistic situation is exactly what we’re seeing across the country. Each district is handling their schools, with states offering support.
There is some panic, mind you, and some districts that don’t need to be going all virtual still are for a multitude of reasons — parent/family panic, teacher union pressure, etc. — but overall, we are seeing good decisions being made. The last thing we should need (much less want) is the federal government getting involved.