January 7, 2021
By Matt Beienburg

When student learning takes a back seat, students should be able to take their funding with them.

This week, two of Arizona’s largest school systems, Gilbert and Chandler Unified School Districts, found themselves bracing for teacher “sickouts” aimed to derail the districts’ plans to provide in-person learning to students, with Chandler ultimately assenting to the demands and sending its kids back to Zoom for another 2 weeks over the objections of many parents and families.  

Now, there has been no one-size fits all solution to the education challenges posed by the pandemic, and with cases surging in Arizona and elsewhere and with a vaccine in deployment, now is not the time to throw caution to the wind. Yet a growing body of work has documented that school shutdowns have taken an extraordinary toll on students (particularly for the most disadvantaged), with research showing shutdowns linked more strongly to local union muscle than actual community risk.

And now, the admonition of those like the UK’s chief medical officer—who concluded that “the chances of children dying from COVID-19 are incredibly small,” while the educational disruption of closures “damages children in the long run”—has been joined even by the American Academy of Pediatrics. According to the AAP president this week, while it is “critical for schools to closely follow guidance provided by public health officials” like the CDC, “[n]ew information tells us that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission of the virus.”

In other words, regardless of one’s views on the risks and tradeoffs of various COVID mitigation efforts, there seems to be an increasingly high bar to justify further displacing most students from regular education any more than shuttering other essential services.

Yet instead of making every attempt possible to ensure opportunities for in-person instruction, the education establishment has fought tooth and nail to deny families opportunities to access offerings outside the districts’ (now largely virtual) monopoly. Indeed, thanks to such political pressures, for example, the massive infusion of roughly $50 billion of federal cash for K-12 from the latest stimulus bill carefully closed off aid to choice options that might otherwise have served kids in person.

And while the Arizona Education Association reportedly sat out the latest formal organizing efforts in Chandler and Gilbert via its local chapters, its sister effort, Arizona Educators United, unreservedly championed demands “pressuring districts to go #VirtualUntilItIsSafe.”

Of course, the AEU can hardly be blamed for returning to a recipe that’s succeeded, such as when staff similarly upended the decisions made by democratically elected school board members of Arizona’s J.O. Combs Unified District in the fall semester, refusing to return to the classroom as desired by district parents and families.

But even as school districts should take every reasonable step to protect teachers and staff (particularly those in elevated risk groups), it seems increasingly clear that the decisions being made in K-12 align chiefly with the preferences of educators, rather than with the urgent needs of students.

Making decisions this way may be the right of school districts, but so, too, should it be the right of those students and their families to seek other options in response. It is time to ensure that all families have access to the options their kids need, through public charter schools, small and safe “learning pods,” education savings accounts, and more—that is, to allow students’ funding to follow them in whatever form of education best meets their needs. And it is for these reasons and more that the Goldwater Institute will continue to support these initiatives in 2021 and beyond. 

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.

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