Spring break usually means a giddy escape from the classroom for children across America. This year, however, the millions of students who have not set foot in a classroom since last spring are celebrating by closing their laptops for a few days. Many of these students have no prospect of returning to class anytime soon — and their pandemic-shuttered schools have become the focus of an ugly battle among teachers’ unions, school boards, parents, and elected officials about how, and when, they should reopen. As the politics of reopening have grown increasingly antagonistic and personal,[1] the pandemic is blurring partisan and racial cleavages around public education and creating new coalitions that could remain powerful players in local education politics. At stake is the fate of our public education system itself.   

This shift may seem surprising because for much of the past 40 years, the politics of education have remained largely consistent: school boards are locally elected (often by voters who do not represent the parents or students)[2] and teachers’ unions advocate for teachers and schools. Parents, in turn, traditionally are united with unions in any number of causes. Teachers’ unions secure resources and funding for schools; parent-teacher associations organize within schools to help. Labor activism among teachers has led to high-profile strikes across the country. In what became the “Red for Ed” campaigns of 2017-18, teachers in both Democratic and Republican states (including not just California but also West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky) demanded better pay and conditions.[3] Public support for teachers and teachers’ unions has remained high, although opinion data shows that parents are mixed on whether or not they think unions improve the quality of education.[4]  

With millions of children out of school for more than a year, however, traditional alliances are being scrambled. On the West Coast, for example, teachers have been offered priority vaccinations, facility improvements, and hazard pay, but unions are still refusing to return to classrooms and in many cases are embroiled in conflict with their districts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and evidence from private and public schools that are operating in person indicate that schools can be (and have been) safe environments. Even so, many districts have been slow to develop reopening plans, provoking the ire of parents.[5] School boards, in turn, have come under fire for their lack of planning and their demonization of parents.[6] And parents are fleeing public schools, with private school applications up in urban areas.[7] The fissures have highlighted the basic collective action problem underlying the politics of public education: While there are well-organized interests in favor of educators (i.e., teachers’ unions), there is no organization of diffuse “pro-good-schools” or “pro-student interests. 

The lack of such a constituency may be unsurprising: Public education is a guaranteed public good that no one needs to lobby to receive; most states require the enrollment of children in school until the age of 16. But like all distributive goods, education is not equally distributed. And thus the constituencies that have emerged around education do not argue in favor of educational resources generally —“quality instruction,” “better schools.” Instead, constituencies tend to organize around racial or wealth lines, with white and suburban parents better able to secure scarce educational resources for their schools and children. Those parents who do get involved in school politics might advocate for things like gifted and talented programs, rather than structural change that would advance the interests of all students.[8] Those who take up the reform cause — advocating for greater accountability, or for school choice — do not typically have the political backing or organizational heft of the most powerful actor in education policy, the teachers’ unions. 

While these unions are often unfairly maligned — George W. Bush’s education secretary, Rod Paige, famously called one of them a “terrorist organization” — their ability to stop even widely popular initiatives that they oppose is quite real. School openings themselves are the perfect case in point. In a recent paper, political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger found that political variables, rather than COVID-related factors, were the most significant determinants of whether or not districts adopted in-person or remote education last fall.[9] Strong Democratic support and strong teachers’ unions were the strongest predictors of districts abandoning in-person reopening plans. Districts with greater numbers of Catholic schools were more likely to consider in-person options — likely because parents had non-union, in-person options at the start of the year. And as the school year has progressed, reopening has been mired in political standoffs with teachers’ unions at their center.

Despite the appearance of parental organization today, parents are “not a well-organized interest and never have been,” according to Stanford University’s Terry Moe.[10] When California adopted a so-called parent trigger law in 2010 to allow parents to take action against the administrators of underperforming schools, few parents availed themselves of it. Most parents are allies of their schools and teachers. As Ohio State’s Vladimir Kogan points out, parents (particularly progressives) may also attach expressive value to being part of the public school system. 

There are two likely paths forward for parents and public education. The first is that the parents most fed up with remote schooling will simply exit. It could be what Michael Hartney describes as “invisible exit” — supplementing their children’s education with tutors and learning pods, for example.[1] It could also be a visible exit to private schools — an option that helps the tiny sliver of kids in private schools and that hurts, directly and indirectly, the many more kids in the public education system. 

The second option is that the barriers around what were once politically untenable options for Democrats will begin to break down. The accountability movement and charter schools have, at various times in the past, enjoyed bipartisan support; but of late, Democratic politicians have aligned themselves with teachers’ unions that oppose both high-stakes testing requirements and charters. These are recent, and tenuous, political arrangements. Parents may now be more open to school choice or may try to attract resources from philanthropists interested in investing in different educational models.    

What is not likely, according to education experts, is any kind of lasting political coalition backing students’ interests. Teachers’ unions are powerful political actors in part because they are entrenched and well-resourced, but also because of the structural power dynamics at play in education itself. Unlike the private sector, where union power is dwarfed by corporate power, teachers face no organized political opposition. The stark divergence in parents’ and unions’ preferences over reopening is unlikely to emerge in a similar fashion in the future. But nonetheless, there can be lessons learned — about the vital function of our schools and the need for powerful actors across the political spectrum to invest more in and care more about our nation’s children.  

Exit from Public Schools

Debates about schooling affect the 56 million children enrolled in the nation’s public schools; nine out of every 10 kids go through the public education system.[12] Exempt from these debates are the 5.5 million children who attend private schools, which include both parochial/religious schools and nonsectarian schools. Private schools are less racially diverse than public schools, enrolling far more white students (67 percent compared to 48 percent white students in public schools) than Black or Latino students. Perhaps obviously, private school parents do not attend local school board meetings or join public school PTAs.

Parents whose kids are in private schools are also buying the privilege of not having to worry about what schools are like for the vast majority of American kids. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan described the exorbitant wealth and demands of parents in independent schools, which serve as pipelines of affluence and privilege.[13] While only 2 percent of American students attend independent schools, 24 to 29 percent of students at universities like Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Dartmouth come from such schools. Although not all private schools are this selective and well-endowed, it is nonetheless worth considering the radical counterfactual of a society in which all parental educational investments went into public, rather than private, schools. The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones has written that “democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good.”[14]  

School closures are only likely to speed up private school enrollments. In cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., private school applications are up and public school enrollments are down. Declining public school enrollments mean less funding for districts, since funding is allocated according to a “butts in seats” formula. Some of these public-to-private parents might be like the white and suburban parents who only advocate for what advances their own children’s interests. But some might be the progressive parents who were staunch advocates of public education or the squeaky wheels who devoted time to educational advocacy — maybe not always successfully, but still. It is an open question whether the public schools are better off without them.  

Shifting coalitions and the education reform movement 

The reopening battles are also likely to shift the political coalitions behind teachers’ unions on the one hand and reform advocates on the other. Democrats who have long supported unions now find themselves working at odds with them: President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (a champion of teachers’ unions) have been vocal about the need to reopen schools, as have Democratic governors and mayors. The early politicization of the pandemic has been difficult to shake, but the left-leaning publication The Nation is now writing in favor of reopenings[15] and Republican candidates are campaigning against suburban Democratic representatives on the issue of school closures.[16]  

As Hartney explained, the reaction to President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped align Democratic interests with teachers’ unions and against high-stakes testing and school choice. But as Democratic politicians now take on the unions, public sentiment is also shifting. This could lead parents (particularly in urban districts) to take the education reform movement more seriously. Black and Latino parents have long supported school choice, vouchers, and charter schools at higher rates than white parents: in 2019, a poll by Harvard researchers found that 70 percent of Black Democrats supported targeted school vouchers and 55 percent supported charter schools, compared to only 40 percent of white parents supporting targeted vouchers and 33 percent supporting charters. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed, constitute around 7 percent of public schools and enroll some 3 million students.[17] Charter schools have higher rates of Black (26 percent) and Latino (33 percent) students than noncharter public schools (15 percent Black and 27 percent Latino).[18]  

Once the school reopening question is settled, we will be left with the consequences of this pandemic — the learning loss, the economic recession, the racial and economic disparities. Parents who care about education might simply revert to the status quo ante and support unions without investing too much thought in what kinds of reforms could improve educational outcomes. But those who have lost faith in unions, and who care about racial equity in particular, might reconsider their positions on school reform. The roots of modern education accountability standards lie in the Civil Rights Movement, which advocated federal standards and testing to better advocate for students in less advantaged schools.[19] Ohio State’s Kogan suggests that parents might now move toward more of a portfolio model of education, seeking options like charters or vouchers. Philanthropists and reformers could take advantage of this opportunity to mobilize greater support for alternatives to traditional education. 

The debates about reopening may be binary — are kids in front of computer screens in their homes or are they in classrooms? — and school reopenings will go far to quiet the political divisions between teachers, districts, students, and parents. But these politics will reverberate through an embattled public education system in other ways. They may sow distrust for government and even organized labor. In pushing families toward nonpublic options, they also accelerate a trend evident in so many other areas of public life: the belief that solutions must lie in private, not public, hands.   

[1]  Kellie Hwang, “Video of Berkeley teachers union chief taking daughter to preschool erupts as flashpoint in reopening battle,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 2021 <https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Video-of-Berkeley-teachers-union-chief-taking-15990654.php>.

[2]Vladimir Kogan et al., “Who Governs Our Public Schools?” Brown Center Chalkboard (Brookings Institution, Feb. 17, 2021)  <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/02/17/who-governs-our-public-schools/>.

[3]In some districts, teachers also demanded more resources for students, greater support staff, and smaller class sizes.

[4] Michael B. Henderson, “Public Support Grows for Higher Teacher Pay and Expanded School Choice,” Education Next, August 20, 2019 <https://www.educationnext.org/school-choice-trump-era-results-2019-education-next-poll/>.

[5]“Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 schools,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 19, 2021 <https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/transmission_k_12_schools.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fmore%2Fscience-and-research%2Ftransmission_k_12_schools.html>; Amelia Nierenberg, “In San Francisco, Closed Public Schools, Open Private Schools,” New York Times, Nov. 4, 2020 <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/us/san-francisco-closed-public-schools-coronavirus.html>.

[6]Judith Prieve, “Oakley School Board Gets First of Five New Trustees Following Hot-Mic Scandal,” East Bay Times, March 4, 2021 < https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2021/03/04/oakley-interim-board-appoints-one-trustee-decides-to-do-the-same-with-others/

[7]Helen Lyons, “Some D.C.-Area Private Schools See Increased Interest As Public School Plans Remain Uncertain,” DCist, July 28, 2020 <https://dcist.com/story/20/07/28/dc-region-private-school-enrollment-increase-public-school-uncertain/>; KQED, “Forum: Turbulent Times for San Francisco’s School District,” March 23, 2021 <https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101882638/turbulent-times-for-san-franciscos-school-district>; Jill Tucker, “Oakland Schools To Reopen This Month After Striking Tentative Union Deal,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 15, 2021 <https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Oakland-strikes-deal-for-schools-to-reopen-16026759.php>

[8]Interview with Vladimir Kogan, March 24, 2020. 

[9]Michael T. Hartney and Leslie K. Finger, “Politics, Markets, and Pandemics: Public Education’s Response to COVID-19,” EdWorkingPaper: 20-304 (Annenberg Institute at Brown University, October 2020) <https://www.edworkingpapers.com/ai20-304>.

[10]Interview with Terry Moe, March 24, 2020. 

[11]Interview with Michael Hartney, March 24, 2020

[12]National Center for Education Statistics, “Back to School Statistics,” (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) <https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372>.

[13]Caitlin Flanagan, “Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene,” The Atlantic, March 11, 2020 <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/private-schools-are-indefensible/618078/>. Independent schools are a subset of private schools that are independent in their financing and management: They are governed by boards of trustees and funded through tuition and donations. 

[14]Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?” New York Times, Feb. 21, 2017  <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/magazine/have-we-lost-sight-of-the-promise-of-public-schools.html>.

[15]Sasha Abramsky, “West Coast States’ Failure to Reopen Schools Is a Disaster,” The Nation, Feb. 19, 2021 <https://www.thenation.com/article/society/coronavirus-schools-education-california/>.

[16]Edward Isaac-Dovere, “Democrats Are Failing the Schools Test,” The Atlantic, March 24, 2021 <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/03/biden-democrats-school-reopening-politics/618378/>.

[17]National Center for Education Statistics, “Charter Schools,” (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) <https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=30>.

[18]National Center for Education Statistics, “Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools,” in The Condition of Education (U.S. Department of Education, last updated May 2020) <https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cge.asp>.

[19]Jesse Hessler Rhodes, “Progressive Policy Making in a Conservative Age? Civil Rights and the Politics of Federal Education Standards, Testing, and Accountability,” Perspectives on Politics 9, no. 3 (September 2011): 519-544 <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/abs/progressive-policy-making-in-a-conservative-age-civil-rights-and-the-politics-of-federal-education-standards-testing-and-accountability/4075D7756136F7EBD3611352FFFD63FB>.