COVID-19 Should Spur Needed Education Reform

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School is back in session, but let’s face it, education is probably not going to be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic—and that’s a good thing.

Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, joins the show to discuss her brand new podcast, “COVID and the Classroom.” 

Amselem discusses the importance of school choice and the ways education should change long-term in light of the pandemic.

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Also, as always, we’ll be crowning our “Problematic Woman of the Week.”

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Lauren Evans: We are so pleased to be joined by Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy analyst here at The Heritage Foundation and host of the brand new podcast “COVID and the Classroom.” Mary Clare, welcome to the show.

Mary Clare Amselem: Thank you so much for having me.

Evans: On Monday, the first episode of your podcast “COVID and the Classroom” was released. Can you tell us a little bit about the podcast, and why did you decide to start it now?

Amselem: Sure. Yes, we have a brand new podcast here at The Heritage Foundation, “COVID and the Classroom.”

I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing this term, but we are living in such unprecedented times, and it really just can’t be said enough. It’s so true.

When this all started, it didn’t even occur to me that this would be so transformational for our education system. Everyone thinks this is such a health issue. This is an issue for our economy. But what this has done, what this pandemic has done to education is really interesting and [transformative].

And to look at all of these parents who were sort of forced to become homeschool parents overnight because they didn’t have an option, it really highlights how much we do need school-choice options. And that’s something that we have been working on in the Center for Education Policy for a long time.

And so I really think it’s important to be using this moment and highlighting why it’s so important to give parents a voice during this time to talk about the difficulties that come with being parents to a school-aged child during this pandemic, and talk about ways that we can rely on public policy to alleviate a lot of these really tough issues we’re dealing with right now.

Allen: It’s so practical. I love this idea, Mary Clare. A new episode comes out every other Monday. Who are you all really trying to reach with the show? Who should be listening?

Amselem: Well, everyone should be listening, first of all. But we are really trying to service this to parents. We want parents who are really struggling with the remote learning. It’s hard.

I flipped through my Instagram stories, and it’s just all parents saying, “Day one of distance learning. Wish me luck.” People are really struggling with this, because their kids want to go see their friends. They want to go to school. They want a sense of some normalcy. And it’s hard to say to your kids, “No, this is your school for the foreseeable future,” and not really having a lot of answers.

Kids want to run around. They want to see their friends. They don’t want to sit in front of a laptop all day. And so we want to be able to talk about that, and we want to be able to talk about what’s going on in our public schools. Why are schools staying closed when the science doesn’t really suggest that we need to be doing that.

We definitely want parents to have a place that they can come to, to listen to interviews that we think might be helpful, to talk about school choice in ways in which that might be helpful for parents. So, I think that would hopefully serve as a good resource.

Evans: I’m really lucky. I’ve gotten a sneak peek of the first episode. And without telling us too much, one part that’s really stuck out to me is the stories that have come out where public school teachers have asked parents to not listen in on their child’s classes.

Can you give us a little teaser on some of the stories that you share about this?

Amselem: Sure. Yeah, we did talk about this a little bit on the podcast. It was one school district that did this that got a lot of attention, but we’re seeing here and there a lot of schools are saying, “You really shouldn’t be listening in on the classes,” and you’ve heard the pushback be, “Well, you can’t just show up at your kid’s school and walk around and sit in on classes normally.”

These are teachers just trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. And OK, I guess I understand that argument, but we need to look at the broader picture of, you are sending your kids to school to educate them in the ways that you want them to be educated. And the way that our public school system is structured should be reflective of the needs and wants of families, not reflective of the needs and wants of teachers because they’re not their kids.

And so, you have to wonder what the motivation is behind this. And when you look at it a little more, you’ve seen a lot of teachers, like a teacher a couple of weeks ago sort of went viral for tweeting that parents listening in on classes, that’s going to get in the way of their work de-structuring or, I forget the exact word he used, but sort of getting rid of implicit biases that kids had and getting rid of your racism or sexism, your homophobia.

That teachers are working on that with your kid, and if you’re listening in, that’s going to get in the way of what they’re trying to do that. That’s a major problem that should be major red flags for all parents, because what they’re basically saying is, “We have plans for your kids, and you’re going to get in the way of the way we want to be raising your children based on our values, not yours.”

That’s an enormous problem, and we should always be structuring education policy to reflect the values of parents, rather than the values of teachers.

Evans: On September 11th, I saw someone posted on Twitter. They’re about my age, 30 years old, and they were a child when 9/11 happened. They posted about how their teacher decided to write a letter and send that letter home with students because the teacher didn’t feel comfortable discussing September 11th and the gravity behind it.

How do you think we went from that time to now, where teachers feel comfortable talking about sex ed and transgender issues? How did we get from point A to point B?

Amselem: That’s a really interesting point. And that is very true. The public school system used to have a deep respect for the fact that we have a system that assumes one size fits all. Meaning, you go to this school based on your ZIP code assignment, your district assignment.

There used to be this understanding that we can’t teach religion in a certain way because people have vastly different views on that. We can’t teach a lot of these cultural issues in one sweeping way because people have vastly different opinions on that, different than math, different than history to an extent.

You can teach history without having this huge bias that we’re seeing nowadays. But there’s been a serious cultural shift, and I think that we can blame our colleges of education, which I talked a little bit [about] on the podcast.

We should respect the fact that some conversations are better left to families, because we need to make sure that parents are approaching these difficult conversations in a way that fits in with their values and fits in with the way that they want their family, their culture to be, to, “Well, we are woke teachers, and we have taken a ton of classes that enable us to handle these difficult conversations in the way that we think is best. And it’s our job to impart that on America’s children.”

It’s a significant shift in the way that we’re approaching teaching, away from preparing kids for life and work towards preparing kids to be activists. And we don’t need teachers creating activists. We need teachers creating able-bodied adults who are civically engaged and can prosper in their careers.

Those difficult conversations are better left to the household, to the families. And I think that we need to be talking about this type of stuff more to get teachers away from those difficult conversations.

Allen: So, let’s talk about some of the solutions to these issues that we’re seeing specifically in the public schools. School choice is certainly, I know, one of your passions and something that we talk about at Heritage a lot.

For our listeners who aren’t familiar with school choice, can you just tell us a little bit about what that difference is between the school- choice option and then the education system that we see today?

Amselem: Sure. School choice is a very simple concept, and I know everyone says this is about the issue areas that they care about, but this really shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

I deeply, deeply believe that if you look at polling on school choice and you just present parents with the question, “Should you be able to choose your child’s school?” Overwhelmingly, parents say, “Yeah, absolutely. I don’t understand the arguments against that” is what the reaction is to who would ever disagree with that.

The basic concept behind school choice is that we have a system now where we have a public school monopoly. And unless you can afford to opt out, you must go to the school that the government has assigned you to, regardless of if that school is teaching something that dramatically undermines your values as a family, regardless of if that school has a serious drug problem, gang problem, violence problem. You have to go there if you can’t afford to opt out.

This has created a huge problem in our society, where we have sort of taken away the ladder of opportunity from families who would be able to escape from poverty in many instances through a good education, but you can’t, because you are stuck at your district-assigned public school that might happen to be of very poor quality.

And so, all school choice is saying is that wealthy elites and politicians in droves have had school choice for their families because they can afford to opt out. What school choice is saying is, “Let’s publicly fund education, but we don’t need to publicly fund the exact school that you are going to.”

So, have the money follow the child, set aside the per-pupil expenditure that we have for students today, give that to families and allow them to say, “OK, we’re either going to completely customize my child’s education through something like an education savings account, or I’m going to take my education dollars and purchase a private school tuition, go to a charter school, online learning if that’s working out for you, whatever it is.”

You should be able to take the education dollars already allocated to your child and use them in whatever way possible, rather than the way we currently have it, which is the government saying, “This is the amount of money we’re willing to spend on your child. And this is the only school that you are able to use that in.”

It’s a horrible way to structure the system. If we completely start it from scratch, no one would redesign it to the system that we have now. Everyone recognizes these problems. And so, this is why school choice is so popular; [it’s] because it’s commonsense public policy.

You should allow parents to choose the school that works for them, using the education dollars already allocated to them.

Evans: What does it look like with the current pandemic that we have going on? A lot of school districts have decided to continue with online classes, but I saw in Seattle last week, only 45% of students actually logged on to the system.

Amselem: I saw that, too. How disturbing is that? You have kids who haven’t even bothered logging in to school. It’s an enormous problem.

We’re leaving kids behind. Kids are getting depressed. It’s really sad to see these depression rates that are coming out of this because it’s unnatural. And it’s sad that kids don’t have answers as to when their schools are reopening again.

Dr. Corey DeAngelis [of the libertarian Cato Institute], who I interviewed on “COVID and the Classroom,” everyone should go listen to that interview. He did some research on “Is there any relationship between districts who aren’t opening their schools and strong teachers union presence?” And what he found was, absolutely yes.

There’s a very strong link between the districts where they didn’t open school and where there’s a strong teachers union presence, which tells me that the major consideration here, the No. 1 priority, isn’t “We need to get kids back to school. We need to be treating this like the crisis it is, and we need to reopen our schools so that families have some sort of option.”

They’re relying on pressure from the teachers union, and that’s wrong. The squabbles between adults should not result in the suffering of children. And those are the people who are suffering from this, are the kids who aren’t able to resume their normal life. It’s definitely deeply troubling.

Evans: Well, how would school choice kind of fix that issue?

Amselem: If your child’s school does not reopen, you should be able to take your education dollars elsewhere. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts.

If your school doesn’t open, there is already a dollar amount tied to your child when they’re enrolled in the public school system. And so, you should be able to say, “OK, why should those dollars go towards a school that’s not operating, that’s not open, where they have an online server, but only 45% of people have logged in.”

You should be able to say, “OK, I’m going to send my child to a school that is open because that’s what works for my family.” You should absolutely have the right to do that.

In terms of right now and the pandemic, our No. 1 policy priorities should be getting schools open and allowing money to follow the child. This is something that a lot of politicians have proposed, and I hope we see that come to fruition.

We should be funding families always, but especially now, when we see so many school closures.

Allen: Mary Clare, you say that school choice is commonsense public policy. I completely agree, but I have heard some people raise concerns that if that money is allotted to each student and it follows them wherever they choose to go, whether that’s a charter school or a private school or homeschooling, then what we’re going to see is that the government is going to say, “Well, you can’t take our money and just kind of do what you want.”

And they’re going to try and implement more of their own procedures or their own heavy hand within things like homeschooling. Can you address that? Is that a concern of yours?

Amselem: Sure. It’s such a loaded question, and this is a pushback that we obviously get all the time, those of us who advocate for school choice.

Just inherent in that argument is the assumption that if parents had the option to leave the public school system, then they would. That’s what the fear is, that they would. And so, that tells you a little bit about the confidence in the quality of education that students are getting at public schools.

If you’re so worried that people would leave with having the option, then maybe the quality of education that they’re getting is admittedly not that good. But again, I think that we should always structure policy so that the people who will be the greatest advocates for their children [are] parents.

There’s this concern about accountability and how can the government track that you’re getting a quality education—as if anyone cares about the quality of your child’s education more than you.

I just inherently reject this argument that there [is] some bureaucrat out there who is more concerned about your child being well-educated than you are, and so they need to be making the decisions, because you can’t be trusted to make a decision … .

I don’t care how educated you are as a parent, if you have a high school degree, a college degree, a graduate degree. You know a good education when you see one. You know a safe school when you see one. You know if your child’s happy in school.

That bureaucrat doesn’t know if your child’s happy at school. They know how they’re performing on test scores. And so, we need to always be structuring these policies, because squashing the voices of parents means that you no longer have the greatest advocate for the child at play in the conversation. And that is so important when dealing with the deeply personal issue [of] what and how kids learn.

Evans: I want to talk about school choice and bring up a specific example, and that is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship. Can you tell our listeners a little bit kind of how that came about and what the effects of that have been?

Amselem: Sure. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a voucher program here in the District of Columbia that has a pretty amazing backstory. …

Well, I was going to say everyone go to Netflix, but you should definitely not do that. You should not go to Netflix these days, but you should search out. Maybe it’s on Amazon Prime. You should search out the video, “Miss Virginia.” It’s a wonderful story of Virginia Walden Ford, who was very vocal and instrumental in getting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program through.

And it’s just the basic argument that there is that dollar amount tied to students already. They should be able to take it to a private school, to a charter school, to whatever school that works the best for their family, because this system, where you can only opt out if you can afford to, is not the way that we should be educating children in America.

Just to put it in dollars and cents, D.C. spends about $31,000 per student per year in the public school system. It’s a massive amount of money. That’s more than most college tuition. That’s vastly more than any private school tuition. And D.C. consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation in terms of test scores, in terms of graduation rates, pretty much any academic outcome you can come up with. D.C. is not performing well.

Something that I talk about on the podcast is that this connection between money and quality simply does not exist in education. And so the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program gives you, I think it’s an $8,000 voucher for K through eighth grade, and then a $12,000 voucher for high school—so, significantly less than the public school would have spent on your child and their systems.

It actually saves money to give these vouchers to parents, and then it allows them to attend a private school of their choice. We saw that in a study that compared students who got the voucher versus students who applied and didn’t get the voucher just to eliminate a selection bias there.

There was a 21 percentage point increase in graduation rates for students who received the voucher. And that’s just the kinds of things that we can measure.

But if you talk to the parents of students who enroll in this program, you hear stories. “This program changed my child’s life. They’re so much happier. They’re safe at school.”

These programs really, really transform lives and transform families far beyond how we can just measure success in terms of graduation rates and test scores. It’s a really fantastic program.

It’s survived many attempts at defunding under the Obama administration, but it really is a fantastic program in D.C., which is under the jurisdiction of Congress, so it is a congressionally mandated program. It’s a really great success story for how school choice programs can be structured.

“Battle for a Good Education,” a documentary by The Daily Signal.

Allen: Mary Clare, can you just give us a little preview of what we can expect to hear on “COVID and the Classroom” this fall?

Amselem: Absolutely. You will hear a lot more talk about school choice. We’ll be tracking public school closures. We’ll be tracking teachers union strikes, and bringing you the latest news on all of that so that you’re up to date on the state of public education in America during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ll be talking to experts to sort of break down the myths about school choice. Talk about pandemic pods. You’ll hear that on the first episode. And I’ll also be interviewing parents. I’ll be talking to them about, “What is your experience? How has this been for you?” And … talking through what are your options. “Are you engaging at a pandemic pod? Are you thinking about homeschooling?”

Those are the kinds of questions that everyday parents are asking themselves today. I can’t wait to talk about them more on the podcast.

Evans: Yes, it is so good, you don’t want to miss it: “COVID and the Classroom,” available on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


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