As we conclude a particularly fraught and divisive presidential election, most Americans (and even those of us who live in D.C.) welcome a reprieve from the constant onslaught of negative political ads, contentious debates, and around-the-clock election coverage. Sadly, a new working paper suggests partisan politics may be influencing key decisions about our nation’s schools, too.
In the paper, researchers Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger examined over 10,000 school districts’ responses to Covid-19 to see what major factors are driving school reopening plans this fall, drawing upon a national database provided by MCH Strategic Data. In addition to local Coronavirus levels, measured by “average daily cases rates” per 10,000 residents, researchers compared reopening data with factors such as county-level support for President Trump in 2016, local teachers union strength, and the presence of private school competition.
Appallingly, if unsurprisingly, the analysis finds “little consistent relationship between the acuity of the pandemic and district responses,” and “evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making.” Rather, the two strongest predictors of reopening decisions were 2016 Trump vote share and teachers union strength. Local school boards in Republican-leaning districts were more likely than boards in heavily Democratic districts to reopen schools at the start of the school year, and researchers found that districts with stronger teachers unions were less likely to reopen. To a lesser degree, the study also found increased private school competition increased the likelihood of a return to in-person instruction. And this trend appears to also hold true for higher education: One recent analysis of college reopening plans similarly found politics, and not coronavirus levels, were correlated with reopening decisions.
Thankfully, thus far, Covid-19 cases remain fairly low in elementary schools, and early international studies also have found little relationship between an uptick in cases and a return to classrooms. But cases are rising among children and nationally, and more and more districts are beginning to open their doors, making it increasingly critical that we separate public health decisions from partisanship and politics. Local case rates must factor heavily into reopening decisions, so we can both avoid reopening schools in virus hot spots, and return students to classrooms where local rates remain low.
The stakes are sobering and high. While schools remain closed, millions of children across the nation will continue suffering-academically, physically, and mentally, with disadvantaged students and students of color suffering most.
There’s much our nation can’t seem to agree upon these days, but surely we should all be on board with reopening our schools safely and sensibly.
SOURCE: Michael T. Hartney and Leslie K. Finger, “Politics, Markets, and Pandemics: Public Education’s Response to COVID-19,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (October 2020).