President Trump released his second-term agenda this week. In it, he included the plan to “Provide School Choice to Every Child in America.” I have long been an advocate of school choice because it gives our most disadvantaged students an immediate escape valve and the chance to join a school and culture that changes the trajectory of their lives. And that escape valve is now needed by more families, more urgently, than ever before.
To that point, this past Friday night, after 5 pm – when many Wisconsin families were outside enjoying one of the last summer weekends before their kids return to school – the liberal bastion of Dane County issued “Emergency Order #9.” That order mandated that all schools in the county begin instruction for grades three to 12 virtually, effective only 60 hours after it was issued, on Monday, Aug. 24 -- what was to be the first day of in-person school for many private school students in the county.
Despite working tirelessly for months to create a safe environment for kids to go back to in-person learning, private school personnel, students, and their families were thrown into tumult upon the last-second announcement – which seems to have been the goal of county policymakers.
Bishop Donald Hying of the Madison, Wisc., diocese (Madison being the largest city in Dane County), wrote in a blunt letter released on Sunday, Aug. 23: “On numerous occasions since early July, county officials were asked to provide the metrics that would be used regarding closing and opening schools, with regard to COVID-19. These were not provided until Friday, leaving many of you, who have already gone back to work, with the added hardship of finding childcare. Many of you have few, if any options, given this order.”
I witnessed this discord firsthand on Aug. 10. A non-profit that I lead, No Better Friend Corp., was onsite at the Lighthouse Christian School in Madison, along with volunteers from Hispanics for School Choice, School Choice Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Federation for Children, to distribute free school and health supplies to Madison area school children and their families. I was inside the school that day and saw the thoughtful social- distancing precautions that Lighthouse had taken for their kids. Unfortunately, the leaders of that school also struggled to get timely information from Dane County officials in advance of opening their school. Nonetheless, they forged ahead and were ready to offer their students a safe learning environment at a critical time.
Along these same lines, the Wisconsin Homeschooling Parents Association has recently indicated that both local school districts and the state’s Department of Public Instruction have issued confusing and misleading guidance to families who have removed, or attempted to remove, their children from school districts in order to educate them at home.
Taken together, along with an early smattering of “thought pieces” meant to guilt those considering the decision to leave public schools for homeschooling or learning pods, it is becoming increasingly clear that America’s political leftists – and the teachers’ unions that fund them – are very worried about the potential for large-scale public-school unenrollment due to their recent COVID-related actions.
They should be worried. From Los Angeles to New York, and many stops in between, America’s public school teachers’ unions have demanded that schools remain physically closed, that police forces be defunded, and that unrealistic COVID-testing policies be implemented before they will consider returning their members to work. While COVID-19 is a real health threat to be taken seriously – a topic I have written about in the past – these unions do not seem to care that it is the most disadvantaged students in our nation who will be most negatively affected by their decisions to keep school facilities closed.
Like many other families in America, my wife and I made the final decision over the past week to unenroll our kids from our local public school district due to frustrations with both curriculum and COVID-19 planning. While we both realize the COVID-19-related challenges faced by schools, it is hard not to see much of what is described above as intentional acts meant to create chaos coming into the 2020 presidential election.
Our nation’s children are not political props or hostages. Schools should, of course, practice responsible social distancing and take reasonable health precautions when returning to in-person instruction. However, far from helping to create a safe environment, the intentional act of adding uncertainty into the lives and education of students – as in the case of Dane County – is intolerable. To be clear: this is not an indictment of teachers; it is an indictment of many of the unions and bureaucrats who purport to represent and lead them.
If America’s teachers’ unions and public education administrators are intent on adding so much uncertainty to our children’s lives, then it is time for federal and state policy to encourage that public education dollars be offered as vouchers so families can pursue the education that best suits their family’s needs.
In Wisconsin, most school vouchers provided by the state for kindergarten through eighth grade provide $7,754 per child per year to the school ($8,400 per year per high school student), while the statewide average per traditional public school student per year is $10,555 (state and local funding). What is more, an EdChoice study has shown that the effect of school choice in Milwaukee alone is capable of driving roughly $499 million in economic benefits over the next 15 years due to higher graduation rates, along with reduced violence in the community.
Put simply, there is a path forward. President Trump, along with sensible federal and state lawmakers, can provide clarity, reduce education costs and simultaneously enable parents to make the right choice for their kids. The irresponsible actions of teachers’ unions across our country and left-wing public officials in places like Madison have simply increased the urgency and need for action.