On July 8, the California Teachers Association (CTA), the most powerful public-sector union in the Golden State, issued a statement asserting that, due to coronavirus concerns, state schools should not open this fall. The following day, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) released a 17-page “research paper” in which concerns about coronavirus were secondary to sweeping political demands—including Medicare for All, guaranteed housing, a wealth tax, a millionaire’s tax, defunding the police, financial support for illegal immigrants, and a moratorium on charter schools. The UTLA ended its manifesto by asserting, without evidence, “the only people guaranteed to benefit from the premature physical reopening of schools amidst a rapidly accelerating pandemic are billionaires and the politicians they’ve purchased.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District fell into line on July 13, announcing that students will not return to the classroom in the fall because of the virus. The circle was completed on July 17, when Governor Gavin Newsom shut down in-person education in 33 of the Golden State’s 58 most densely populated counties, which account for over 80 percent of the state’s school-age population. But in a confusing twist—the details buried in a press-release footnote—individual counties can apply for a waiver for elementary school students, exempting them from the shutdown.
The notice explains that “a waiver may only be granted if one is requested by the superintendent (or equivalent for charter or private schools), in consultation with labor, parent and community organizations. Local health officers must review local community epidemiological data, consider other public health interventions, and consult with CDPH (California Department of Public Health) when considering a waiver request.” The process for getting permission to open grade schools is thus onerous and opaque. As EdSource’s John Fensterwald points out, the state “does not elaborate on which conditions must be met before a county health officer could allow in-person instruction.”
While California is canceling school for millions of kids in the name of science-based public health, many child-health experts are urging schools to reopen with in-person classes this fall. The venerable American Academy of Pediatrics, having weighed the pros and cons, maintains that schools should reopen for in-person learning for children’s overall well-being. The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year “should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.” A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reports similar conclusions.
Opposing the shutdown, the Center for American Liberty will sue the state on the grounds that its constitution promises children a basic education and that online learning is insufficient to this guarantee. Harmeet Dhillon, the group’s head, argues that Governor Newsom has gone too far. “This issue affects not just the kids,” she says, “but their parents, and their parents who have jobs, and all the workplaces that are impacted. This is actually a catastrophe for California, and we are intending to challenge it legally.”
The best way out of this mess: fund students, not the education bureaucracy. If a school district or the state decides not to hold classes, parents should be able to use education dollars to pay for their child’s education elsewhere. As Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation, wrote recently, “If a Walmart doesn’t reopen, families can take their food stamps elsewhere. If a school doesn’t reopen, families should similarly be able to take their education dollars elsewhere.”
Though private and religious schools are included under Newsom’s shutdown order, direct funding of students in the form of vouchers would still be a blessing for many families, who could use the money to help defray the costs of educating their kids via a homeschool co-op, for example. After Newsom’s announcement to shutter schools, California assemblyman Kevin Kiley stated, “today’s decision elevates the appearance of safety over actual student safety. A growing body of evidence suggests school closures do little to flatten the epidemic curve, while an abundance of evidence shows they are a calamity for kids.” Kiley added: “By giving himself political cover, Governor Newsom has exposed millions of kids to untold trauma and loss. The impacts of school closures will be devastating for working parents, academic equity, and mental health.”
For too long, the interests of schoolchildren and their parents have taken a backseat to those of education bureaucrats, teachers’ unions, and politicians. The situation is long overdue for a radical change.