The current hullabaloo over getting the vaccine (presently available for anyone over age of 12) and wearing masks while in classrooms and in buildings (see here and here) reveals to me anew two inescapable and historical (but too often forgotten) facts about U.S. public schools as they reopen for the academic year.
First, public schools are political institutions.
Second, tax-supported public schools, past and present, mirror pervasive value conflicts–often called “culture wars”–in society.
Neither of these facts should surprise readers or those who work inside schools, parents or informed observers of American schools. Nor should these facts startle those who rail at the latest missteps of governors and other elected officials in getting students to return to school after 18 months of pandemic back-and-forth about student learning loss, incidence of Covid-19 among children, and wearing masks. Yet the continuing eruption of virus variants and uncertainly surrounding what can and cannot be done to stay safe and healthy raises questions among many Americans about such traditional annual events as students returning to school in August and September. And those questions are political ones.
How so ?
By “political” I do not mean Democratic/GOP partisanship. Surely, that is one form of “political” activity–one that educators avoid at all costs in schools. They largely look upon such activities as being outside the pale of teachers’, board members’ and administrators’ daily work. What I mean by “political” is that decision-makers prize certain values and they build a coalition of supporters using data and deliberative argument to build a coalition of supporters behind particular choices to enact the prized values buried within a policy.
A dramatic instance of this is when thousands of districts closed their schools in March 2020 when Covid-19 turned into an epidemic.
What values drove governors, mayors,and county officials to close schools? Safety and health of children was the over-riding one but it competed with educators’ and parents’ deep concern over loss of academic learning–another value. Throw into the stew pot of competing values, job losses as manufacturing,corporate offices, small businesses, chain restaurants, theaters, leisure industries let people go or ordered that they work from home. A healthy, fully employed workforce where Americans can buy products and services is another value that elected officials prized.
One deeply prized value, however, was subordinate to these official, value-driven decisions as the pandemic unfolded: an individual’s right to make a decision, a value that has been part of the American Creed for centuries. That right to decide what’s best for one’s self includes the parents’ right to determine what’s best for their sons and daughters. As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded over 18 months these values came into conflict over students wearing masks in schools and everyone over the age of 12, including teachers, getting vaccinated.
All of these competing values came into play as elected officials had to decide about closing schools, reopening them,and as the virus spread, quarantining students. Conflicting information about the coronavirus and its variants permitted a previous national administration far more interested in stopping a hemorrhaging economy to urge schools to remain open as the pandemic surged, through the spring, summer, and fall of 2020. This is a stark, recent example of value conflicts and policymakers making political choices among preferred values. Prosaic examples of value-driven, political decisions are also available.
Every American adult, for example, pays federal, state, and local sales, income, and property taxes. Elected officials take these public monies and allocate dollars to services such as police and fire departments, libraries, parks, and, of course, schools. Historically, community leaders established each of these community institutions because they enacted values that citizens wanted. But, and this is a huge “but,” so many communities across the nation vary greatly in their capacity to generate sufficient funds to provide the services their communities want. Inequitable funding of schools and other services are rife across the nation. There are wealthy towns and poor villages. Some cities with highly valued space–think Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, have low tax rates for property yet generate large sums of money, for example, than other places where property values are low and atx rates are high–think large swatches of inner-city Detroit.
Nonetheless, elected officials must determine how much tax funds go to each agency annually. And those decisions are political ones. The uproar after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, for example, led to calls for redistributing funds from city police departments to other agencies that can help the homeless and those in need for mental health support. Where such policies were made, as in Minneapolis and other cities, they are clearly political decisions sparked by protests and calls for change.
Without as much fanfare and conflict, similar political decisions, undergirded by data collected by staff, are inherent to school boards drawing up annual school budgets. Or school boards setting attendance boundaries within a district. Or deciding what kinds of racial and ethnic content should be included in the curriculum and at what grade levels such content should be in teacher lessons. Or re-draw school attendance areas to increase or decrease numbers of affluent and poor students at particular schools. All of these are political decisions where contending and prized values arise and local/state authorities have to decide which values they support.
Ditto for practical school district questions that have allies on each side of an answer to the following questions. Should the district with a shrinking budget hire more teachers? How much funding should go to renovating older buildings while maintaining existing ones? Buy more laptops for elementary school or middle school students? Such budgetary questions surrounded by staff-collected data arise often in school districts. Neighborhood groups and local associations as well as individual citizens lobby for their favorite activity (e.g.,expand middle school sports program) or unexpected events push to the surface district needs that have to be met (e.g., collapse of a swimming pool). Amid these competing needs–each representing a value prized by members of the community who pay taxes– political decisions get made.
And here is where the tortured debate over mandating masks in schools enters the picture of political decision-making.
The values driving the policy debate about masking mandates in schools seem to be clear: personal liberty vs. community safety and health. To be free to decide what is best for one’s self and family–individualism–is a historic and treasured value in American democracy yet it is in conflict with an equally treasured and historic value, keeping community members safe from diseases that maim and kill. In this instance, a virus that is hard to contain and continues to spread. And then even a third value enters the mix: how much weight should be given to scientific experts’ recommendations, say for vaccines or quarantines that override parents’ wishes when health and safety of their children are at stake ?
I take up these conflicting values in Part 2 as another instance of tax-supported public schools mirroring the turmoil of the larger society.