March 18, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

U.S. News & World Report declared just a few years ago that policy achievements in K-12 education had once “stood out as a shining example of bipartisanship in an ever-partisan, log jammed political system.” By 2017, however, the epitaph read: “Bipartisan education politics a thing of the past.” 

But now, in the midst of the rising coronavirus pandemic, perhaps we can see a renewed glimmer of this spirit shining through the storm clouds. 

Sure, we seem far from national unity when, as Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) observed early on, forums and discussion boards are “filled with frustrated complaints about the idiocy of school leaders. When schools close, critics fume that it’s an irresponsible overreaction. When schools don’t close, it’s a failure to take the crisis seriously.” But regardless of one’s take on the containment measures, one thing is clear—the coronavirus has forced together decision-makers of all stripes to help address the well-being of students and families. In Arizona this week, as elsewhere around the country, the announcement of statewide school closures came in remarkably apolitical language: a joint statement by Republican Governor Doug Ducey and Democrat Superintendent Kathy Hoffman.

Meanwhile, educators, parents, and the public have stepped forward to meet an unprecedented situation in innovative ways, and their efforts deserve our recognition. As Governor Ducey observed, for those whose lives have been upended by school closures, “we are coordinating with partners in the nonprofit, faith-based, and education communities, including the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA to make available child care options to families who need it,” while organizations of various types seek to ensure students’ continued access to meals. At the same time, news outlets have noted “the Governor ask[ing] that school officials make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that could be sent home.”

Of course, for the nearly 2 million students in the United States who are homeschooled normally, this mode of education may seem reasonably familiar. But for the rest, we see individuals and institutions stepping up to help light the way. From Kerry McDonald at the Cato Institute compiling a list of free resources (ranging from the Smithsonian to Khan Academy to TED-Ed to gently reminding us of the power of books and offline media) to larger providers reportedly gearing up to share their remote learning plans nationally, there is much to be encouraged by. Indeed, as the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke similarly wrote this week, while many public places may have temporarily closed their doors to field trips, over 2,000 museums—such as the National Gallery of Art and the British Museum—have created virtual tours for families to access from home.

Perhaps more important than even the catalogs of resources, however, have been the responses of individuals who have stepped up not only for their own kids, but to offer advice and reassurance to others. Reports of parents sharing homeschooling tips with each other, infused with small doses of humor and humble expectations, have helped give vitality and hope from the ground up.

Of course, even with all of these encouraging actions, there is no doubt that difficult, costly, and politically charged decisions lie ahead. But as AEI’s Hess put it, “fiscally prudent policymakers shouldn’t treat this as a moment to grandstand or nickel-and-dime schools and colleges. It also means, though, that school leaders and advocates would do well not to treat this crisis as a cash piñata.”

Whatever trials the next weeks or months hold, perhaps we can embrace the resilience and educational creativity of our communities and reclaim a small piece of the bipartisanship of days gone by.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

This is part of an ongoing series of posts analyzing America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. For more on this topic from Goldwater Institute experts, click here.

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