Public education a recession-proof industry

Amidst all the attention over when and how schools reopen, one topic has been overlooked. In an economy that has been decimated with unemployment in the wake of COVID-19, those in the education community have escaped facing the same economic reality as many of their patrons. Buoyed by federal dollars through the CARES Act and some creative budget manipulation by Governor Kelly, education funding in Kansas remains unaffected. As parents of school-age children face economic challenges that come with reacting to on-again, off-again plans to reopen schools either in person, through distance learning or some hybrid design, educators are immune to those financial challenges.

The question faced by those in the education community is how they are going to go about doing their jobs, not whether there is a job to go to.

And this is not the first time.  In the wake of what has been dubbed the Great Recession after the economic collapse in 2008, public education was bailed out by funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) which passed in 2009. Kansas received approximately $500 million in additional federal aid to shore up the loss of state and local revenues due to the recession. That money prevented mass teacher layoffs. In the two years of ARRA funding, the percentage drop in the number of total teachers, as reported to KSDE, was 3.1%. That doesn’t mean 3% of teachers were laid-off, it just means there were fewer teachers. During that time, I was teaching in Topeka 501 and no teachers lost their job. There were, however, teacher buy-outs, with the district paying teachers a one-time bonus for retiring. Also, and perhaps more important personally, I never at any time considered my job as a teacher in jeopardy.

The point of this is to provide an additional point of view as the new school year approaches. The education community seems to have lost perspective on the impact their decisions have on working families. Take Blue Valley (USD 229) for example. To add insult to injury for working parents who are in limbo as to how schools will reopen in that district, the district administration has offered to pay for child care to teachers who “have unresolved child-care needs as a result of the implementation of a Hybrid or Distance Learning Model.” So not only are teachers not facing layoffs due to COVID-19, many will effectively get a raise by having the district pay for babysitting. Plus, in Wichita USD 259 there are additional questions about how the BOE arrived at their decision to begin the semester.

While teachers across the country are threatening to strike if their demands are not made  – including non-safety issues like an end to charter schools, eliminating police in the schools and a tax on Wall Street billionaires – many parents of their students are trying to navigate through uncertain economic and, yes, uncertain education scenarios for their kids.

I spent twenty years of my life dedicated to providing students with the best educational experience I could. And I can’t overemphasize how important education is to our children, families and country. However, I witnessed how that importance too often has spilled over into a sense of entitlement – a viewpoint that the wants of the education community should come at any cost. As public education continues to be a recession-proof industry, perhaps a little more uncertainty would make it more responsive to those they are charged to serve: students, families and taxpayers.

That “uncertainty” has already taken shape across the country. The rise of “pandemic pods,” as they have come to be known, gives parents an alternative to district-based remote learning. Simply put, a “pandemic pod” is formed when a group of parents pools their resources to form their own “school.” They can be led by parents, tutors, or even licensed teachers. This concept is somewhat controversial because at this time only parents who can afford to be in a pod benefit. However, a policy fix can mitigate the financial piece, allowing all parents and students this as an alternative. If the law were changed to allow tax dollars to follow the students, it would create a win-win situation. It would not only eliminate the financial hurdle for low- and middle-income families, but it would also get the attention of the education establishment to better serve students and families.

Although the pandemic will prove to be a short-term crisis, the stasis of an underperforming, institution-based public education system will continue in perpetuity as long as those institutions never face financial consequences.