Public Schools Will Be on the Ballot in November

I believe America needs high-quality education that’s available to all children as an engine of economic mobility and as a building block for preparing the next generation of engaged citizens. I also know that in general, public school parents — like me — are satisfied with their children’s education, even if they aren’t exceedingly confident in the system. As I wrote in March: “It’s a bit like the adage about Congress: People tend to like their own representatives (that’s why they keep sending them back year after year) but tend to have a dim view of Congress overall.”

That said, I’m concerned about what seems to be a creeping loss of faith in public schools. As Anya Kamenetz put it recently, “Extended school closures during the coronavirus pandemic effectively broke the social compact of universal, compulsory schooling.” For some, that contract has not been repaired, and they still fear that public schools can’t meet an acceptable standard — not just for their children but for everyone.

And I’m worried that some proponents of public schooling, and some politicians, have given short shrift to this breakdown. At times, they’ve seemed to wave away parental fears about kids falling behind by characterizing the concept of learning loss as a “hoax” or suggesting that parents shouldn’t have a say in what schools teach. But if, for example, your third grader is now struggling to read because remote first grade was a disaster, that’s very real and could have long-term ramifications.

As the midterms rapidly approach, and both houses of Congress have the potential to flip to Republican control, I wonder if Democrats have paid enough attention to disenchanted parents. In July, The 74, a news site that covers education issues, ran a story with the headline: “Rash of New Polls Raises Red Flags for Democrats on Education.” The gist of it is that voters used to trust Democrats more than they trusted Republicans on education, and that trust has eroded significantly over the past few years. Perhaps that’s not fair, but voters get to have the final say.

Other polls show that education is a more salient issue than it was before the pandemic. In an overview of issues from the 2018 midterms, Pew Research didn’t include education when surveying voters about what they considered “very big” problems; the closest one mentioned was “affordability of a college education.” In Pew’s 2022 midterm overview, however, education ranked sixth, with 58 percent of registered voters saying it’s a matter that’s “very important” to them. This election year, according to Pew, voters care more about education than abortion, immigration and climate change. (Notably, this poll was conducted during the first two weeks of August, after Roe v. Wade was overturned.)

All of this dovetails with what the longtime pollster and communications analyst Frank Luntz, known for his work with Republican candidates and campaigns, has been hearing in focus groups over the past couple of years: Many children are still reeling from the challenges of the pandemic, and not all parents have faith that the public school system can help their kids recover. “I’ve done work with so many education reform efforts, and parents just felt forgotten,” he said.

Luntz added that some parents say: “It’s my number one issue, my major source of frustration. I’m furious at the Democrats for turning it into an ideological issue and at the Republicans for dropping it, and for turning to other things.” Even if they don’t change their votes, they are moving with their feet: A recent survey cited by The 74 found: “Between spring 2021 and spring 2022, there was a 9 percent drop in families saying their children are enrolled in traditional public schools.”

While most children are still educated in the traditional public school system and many parents either can’t afford to pull their kids or have limited options if they do so, I wanted to hear directly from parents about why their children had left traditional public schools for charters, private schools and home schooling in the past few years. I put a call out for these families in one of my newsletters earlier this month and so far 143 readers have responded. Obviously, this wasn’t a scientific poll — there are about 90,000 traditional public schools in the United States. But I read every email and I had follow-up phone conversations with 17 parents.

Among the parents who emailed, there was a good deal of racial, religious and geographic diversity. There was less diversity, however, when it came to socioeconomic status and levels of formal education.

Nearly every parent I spoke to acknowledged, unprompted, how privileged they were to be able to move their children to a new situation, and lamented that this wasn’t an option for all families. Most described themselves as Democrats, supportive of public schools in general and supportive of teachers in particular. Some described their own experiences as students, and how attending quality public schools had changed their lives for the better.

Their reasons for taking their kids out of public schools varied, but I noticed some recurring themes:

Parents feel alienated by school board politicization. Parents expressed upset about the heated rhetoric they observed over masking, debates about the perceived influence of critical race theory (C.R.T.) and other hot-button topics, and about school systems they felt no longer shared their values. For instance, some parents, typically in more liberal areas, said they felt their districts were prioritizing things like social and emotional learning over the basics of reading, writing and math. Others, who tended to live in more conservative parts of the country, were offended by book banning and anti-C.R.T. frenzy.

Rose Berg, who lives in Bee Cave, Texas, moved her two children to private school for this year. She had moved to an Austin suburb because its public schools were said to be excellent, but after conservative PAC-backed candidates were elected to the school board and “the threat of book banning loomed,” she had no doubt that switching to private school was the right decision. She also said gun violence was a major concern, and her move away from public school was “a direct reaction to Uvalde.”

Parents whose children have learning differences feel abandoned. Getting your children’s needs met when they don’t fit the public school mold has always been hard, and the pandemic made it harder. Several parents I spoke to have moved their kids into specialized schools because they felt their children weren’t getting what they needed in public schools, despite the fact that they are legally entitled to appropriate support through the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which in the 2020-21 academic year covered 15 percent of all public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some of these parents were happier now that their children were in specialized schools. Others expressed that even though their kids were doing well at new schools, cordoning off children with learning differences from everybody else is bad for society as a whole.

Jenna Gibilaro’s family moved from Brooklyn to Orlando, Fla., to find schooling that she felt met the needs of her older son, who has autism. She told me over the phone that from her perspective, district officials “set up roadblocks” to getting appropriate services. This has the effect of discouraging families of children with learning differences from staying in the system. “That’s the sense I got,” she said.

Parents who are essential workers had to choose between their jobs and public schools. Elizabeth Bell, a nurse who lives in Tulsa and was the director of operations at a hospital group during the pandemic, moved her daughter to private school because neither she nor her husband could work from home for a prolonged period of time to support their child’s remote schooling. Unlike local public schools in her area, she said, private schools were back open with Covid risk mitigation strategies in place. Part of what’s keeping her kid in private school is that public school aftercare options aren’t as available as they were before the pandemic, and their jobs don’t end at 2:30.

Private school tuition is a strain on her family and they’ve had to reorganize their finances. She says she still believes in public schools, but worries their mission has been compromised.

Of those who identified as Democrats, a handful said they wouldn’t vote for progressive candidates, were less inclined this year to vote at all or would even consider voting for Republicans on the local level who were committed to strengthening schools. There’s still time for politicians up and down the ballot to highlight their plans for and commitment to improving public education, and to make sure parents know their concerns are being heard.

But we’re only weeks from Election Day.

While I think the leaching of trust in public education may not be so dire that it determines something like control of Congress, Luntz isn’t so sure. “It’s not slow. It’s fast,” he said. “That is the difference between you writing the story three years ago and you writing the story today. They were losing faith in 2020, 2019; they lost faith in 2022. That is a very important distinction.”

Want More?

  • This month, Opinion talked to 12 teachers about their experiences over the past few years. One teacher said she resented politicians who’ve never been teachers driving educational policy, “Because we know what happens in our classroom on a day-to-day basis, and others don’t.”

  • The Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat discusses “Who’s doing the ‘quiet leaving’ from the Seattle public schools.”

  • In The New York Times Magazine, Charley Locke investigates what school districts are doing (or not doing) with their pandemic money in “American Schools Got a $190 Billion Covid Windfall. Where Is It Going?”

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