Will the government kill public schools?

Every government action, no matter how seemingly high-minded, is burdened by the Law of Unintended Consequences. This is why Ronald Reagan once remarked that the nine scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Between March and the end of May,  government fiats closed millions of businesses throughout the country. (Some businesses in some states remain closed at the time of this writing.)

That, of course, created millions of new unemployment claims, and destroyed the livelihoods of millions of small businesspeople. Thanks, government!

Government bureaucrats and progressives, however, are usually seen as the friends of public school teachers. But when the government screwed the pooch of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the government may have screwed the public schools as well.

Most public schools did not do a good job of implementing remote learning programs during the shutdown. To be fair, they had little time to prepare.

The result, though, is that millions of American parents have started homeschooling, and interest in homeschooling has surged since the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown.

This is bad news for anyone who earns their daily bread from public schools. Homeschooling was a growing trend even before coronavirus. Practically no one in my generation (Generation X) was homeschooled. I now routinely meet young adults in their twenties who were taught at home.

Here in Ohio, the powers-that-be are talking about restarting school in September with a raft of unworkable social distancing and PPE rules. I may be in my 50s, but I remember what it was like to be a ten-year-old. Ten-year-olds aren’t going to stay six feet apart from each other and wear masks throughout an 8-hour school day. But that is the fantasy that public health officials are putting forth, at least for now.

The now obsessive daily updates on death tolls, new cases, and hospitalizations have also created an atmosphere of panic. Caution and awareness are good, mind you; but panic is almost always counterproductive.

Lower income people will have no choice but to continue sending their children to public schools. But affluent parents in the suburbs will lean toward homeschooling. These environments are populated with many stay-at-home moms who have college degrees. And the government and the media have spent the past 3 months convincing them that their precious little Emmas and Abigails, Joshuas and Trevors are GOING TO DIE if they’re exposed to coronavirus. Never mind that coronavirus rarely makes children sick; we have a public panic to maintain.

Just before the Big Shutdown, a major school levy passed in my suburban school district. The district had not passed a levy since 2004. Parents’ groups mobilized behind the levy and turned out the vote. Despite those efforts, the levy still did not pass by a large margin.

As affluent suburban parents embrace homeschooling in larger numbers, the less enthusiastic they will be about being taxed to pay for public schools. And there will be no shortage of libertarian and Tea Party types to remind them that most public school employees only show up for work 9 months out of the year.

This is likely to create a funding crisis for public schools, and a reduced enthusiasm for them in affluent areas. This, of course, will add fuel to the fires of our debates about race, class, and economic mobility.

Funding for declining and depopulated public schools will likely be a contentious issue during the next few election cycles. A generation from now, communal education may no longer be a universal experience. (It already isn’t, among Americans under 30.) How will that affect American attitudes about public education, and who pays for it?

Good questions. One thing is reasonably certain, though: public schools will be in an even more imperiled state on the other side of this crisis.