The Covid-19 pandemic prompted the largest disruption to American education in living memory. At the onset of the crisis in spring 2020, nearly every K–12 school, public and private, closed its doors. At the start of the next school year, the decision to reopen for in-person instruction or to continue operating remotely varied widely among regions of the country, across school sectors—traditional district, charter, and private—and even from school to school in a given community.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” commented former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, while seeking a return to office in 2021. His Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, wove McAuliffe’s remark into a campaign that was making education its centerpiece. When Youngkin defeated McAuliffe in an upset, many pundits declared parent activism to be a deciding factor.
Calamities often disrupt the status quo. After the influenza pandemic that began during World War I and lasted two years, many Europeans turned to socialism, fascism, and Bolshevism. In the United States, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression induced many people to reject laissez-faire capitalism in favor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its social safety-net programs, public-works projects, and government regulations.
The 15th annual Education Next survey, conducted in June 2021, yields a host of specific results that reveal one large fact about the current state of public opinion on American education: The public is cautious—extremely cautious. In the presence of a still-circulating Covid-19 virus, a large percentage of parents and the broader public want schools to take strong measures to keep children safe as they return to school. Yet many parents are not ready to risk the injection of a Covid vaccine into their child’s arm, even as government agencies testify to its safety and effectiveness.
President-elect Joe Biden has made reopening a majority of K–8 schools for in-person instruction a priority for his administration’s first 100 days, with the goal of getting more American students safely back into the classroom. Yet neither information gathered so far by researchers, nor data reported by the federal government and the states, can say where the nation stands with respect to that goal. While various organizations have tracked school districts’ stated policies on reopening, those policies defy easy categorization and may not capture reality on the ground.
For 14 years, the Education Next annual survey has tracked American opinion on education policy. We have gauged people’s views through the throes of the Great Recession, dramatic changes in partisan control in both Washington, D.C., and state capitols, and attendant shifts in the direction of federal and state education policy. None of that compares to the disruption that unfolded this spring, as the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools nationwide and brought the American economy to its knees.
In Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court strikes down agency fees. The unions have said that the case is a corporate attack on teacher interests. Eric Heins, the President of the California Teachers Association, insists that “corporate CEOS, the wealthiest one percent, and politicians who do their bidding” launched the lawsuit. “They want to use the Supreme Court to take away the freedom of working people to join together in strong unions,” he says.
But a majority of the public—and of teachers themselves, don’t see it that way.
There’s no denying political climate change. The past 18 months have seen an enormous swing in the Washington power balance, a shift that has heightened the polarization that has characterized our public life for more than a decade now. How has this divisive political climate influenced public opinion on education policy and reform? And how much, if at all, has the new president swayed the public’s views?
In its 10th annual survey of American public opinion, conducted in May and June of 2016, Education Next finds that the demise of school reform has been greatly exaggerated. Public support remains as high as ever for federally mandated testing, charter schools, tax credits to support private school choice, merit pay for teachers, and teacher tenure reform. However, backing for the Common Core State Standards and school vouchers fell to new lows in 2016.
The NAACP, at its national convention in Cincinnati, voted this July to support "a moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools." In Massachusetts, a local NAACP leader is campaigning against the charter-expansion referendum bill on the state ballot in November. Comparing charters to segregated schools, he shouted: "As Brown vs. the Board of Education taught us, a dual school system is inherently unequal."
Throughout this campaign season, Democrats have feigned confusion about why disaffected Republicans have not embraced Hillary Clinton, given Donald Trump’s character defects. But the K-12 education plank in the Democratic Party platform does a lot to explain the hesitance. The party’s promises seem designed to satisfy teachers unions rather than to appeal to ordinary Democrats, much less opposition moderates.
As the United States entered the 21st century it was trying to come to grips with a serious education crisis. The country lagged behind its international peers, and its half-century effort to erode racial disparities in student achievement had made little headway. Many people expected action from the federal government.
Americans have generally wanted much the same things taught in their public schools. Elementary students should learn three “R’s”—reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. In high school, it’s time to prepare for college or a career by studying core subjects, such as English, history, algebra, biology, and a foreign language. That basic understanding has not prevented political spats over school spending and school attendance boundaries. But the core operations of schools have usually been left undisturbed.
n 2014 the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, acting together, sent every school district a letter asking local officials to avoid racial bias when suspending or expelling students.
An ancient Armenian King, Tigranes the Great, when told Roman General Lucius Lucullus and his army were en route to Armenia, had the messenger beheaded. Unfortunately, that made it difficult for Tigranes to gather any further intelligence, Plutarch tells us.