On Thursday afternoon, Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard fired off a letter asking Gov. Henry McMaster to “eliminate in person instruction and provide for virtual learning only” at S.C. schools because a 28-year-old teacher in a Columbia suburb had died from COVID-19.
Forty-five minutes later, the governor walked up to a microphone, reminded reporters that he doesn’t have the authority to tell schools what to do and said that if he did, he would have already ordered all of them to … offer in-person instruction five days a week.
Mr. McMaster wasn’t responding to Mr. Gilliard’s request, although a reporter did cite Demetria Bannister’s death and ask him how many more teacher deaths are acceptable. (“None,” he answered.)
He had called the news conference to release his spending priorities for the remaining federal CARES Act funding that the Legislature will debate this week.
He is urging lawmakers to allocate $50 million to public schools that offer face-to-face instruction five days a week.
The striking thing about this juxtaposition of teaching preferences is that Mr. McMaster is the person who has drawn the justifiable ire of public school supporters with his effort, which goes before the state Supreme Court on Friday, to use another $32 million in emergency COVID funding to undermine support for our public schools, by paying parents to abandon them.
Yet his latest spending proposal could be the sort of thing that will save the public schools from the likes of Mr. Gilliard and all the parents, teachers and politicians — every one of whom is probably outraged over his voucher plan — who are incensed that any classes are being held in person with infection rates still so high.
If that sounds just as crazy as the idea of closing down face-to-face instruction because a teacher in a district that isn’t offering any in-person classes died from COVID-19, bear with me.
Vouchers don’t simply steal money from public schools. They actively entice the most engaged parents to pull their children out of the schools, which increases the concentration of students who don’t have the support that is so important to their success.
This in turn feeds an insidious cycle that undermines public support and thus political support for improving the schools.
Mr. McMaster began his push for money to support face-to-face instruction by noting that “for many South Carolina families, public schools provide the opportunity for parents to work, provide housing, meals and economic security for their children” and arguing that parents “shouldn’t have to choose between their child or their job.”
Scoff if you want, but he is describing the reality for a lot of parents, as evidenced by the number who want their kids back in the classroom five days a week.
Some of whom are absolutely outraged that their districts aren’t giving them the option. (If you don’t believe those people exist, check out the online chat that accompanies Charleston County school board meetings. They’re there — right alongside the ones who are outraged that any districts would even consider in-person classes, for anyone.)
I understand why many school districts are taking such a cautious approach, but many parents simply are not going to settle for virtual education because they know it’s not worth anywhere near as much as in-person education and they can’t serve as part-time teachers every day.
We’re already starting to see this, even without any certainty that the governor’s voucher plan will survive Friday’s legal challenge.
We’ve seen it in increased enrollments at private schools. We’ve seen it in microschools, and we see the seeds for more in the education pods that some parents are starting to form, which could easily morph from a temporary fix to a permanent one that no longer revolves around the school district.
The number of parents leaving the public schools is relatively small. Now.
But what happens when we get the post-Labor Day COVID spike or the one we all expect to accompany the arrival of cold weather, and schools don’t move any more kids from the waiting list to a classroom, and they don’t transition from two to five days a week?
What happens when they actually go backward? When those 19 districts that started school in person five days a week decide they have to cut back to two days? When the ones at two days decide they have to go all virtual?
I don’t know what the answer is to this, although I suspect it has to involve more risk than a lot of people want to take.
But every one of us who worries about what happens to our public schools when the most active and engaged parents pull out need to stop fixating on a voucher plan we probably can’t stop and instead devote our energy to finding a way to get all the kids back into the classroom whose parents want them in the classroom.
If we fail to do that, we’re going to do a lot more to harm public schools, and the children who need them most, than any voucher program ever could.