In spring of 2020, we saw signs that billionaires and neoliberal politicians were looking to use the COVID-19 lockdown to finally eliminate one of the last remaining venues where Americans convene in the practice of democratic self-governance: the brick-and-mortar schoolhouse.
Plutocrat-funded techno-optimists giddily suggested we use the temporary requirement of virtual learning to test-drive models that give families more “flexibility” and “freedom.” Then-governor Andrew Cuomo formed a partnership between New York state and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore a post-pandemic future without “all these physical classrooms.” Betsy DeVos announced $180 million in grants for states to “rethink” K–12 learning, and her cohort of privatization pushers began licking their chops.
Advocates of public education were rightly horrified, recognizing that this would amount to a further hollowing out of one of our last remaining public goods. Fortunately, a combination of factors turned the discourse emphatically back in favor of preserving in-person K–12 learning as the American standard — for now.
The nearly universal problems with remote instruction last year made it politically impossible for the privatization crew to continue arguing that e-learning is the glittery new frontier of educational progress. In fact, survey data shows that a majority of parents disapprove of any kind of change to traditional schooling. This is despite a relentless onslaught of rhetorical attacks on public schools — from the bipartisan vilification of teachers’ unions to right-wing attempts to use mask mandates and critical race theory to breed ill will among parents. The term “school choice” has apparently become so distasteful that school choice conservatives are looking to rebrand their body blows to public education as a “school freedom” and “parents’ rights” movement. They’re winning legislative battles in diverse states, but they’re losing the war for public opinion.
It’s widely accepted that in-person schools meet critical developmental needs and are necessary for most students. Nevertheless, the pandemic has swiftly accelerated the expansion of digital instruction. Public education advocates are now at a crossroads. We can either proactively define the relationship between remote and in-person schooling, or we can watch from the sidelines as private companies claim a monopoly over distance learning and use it to undermine public education.
Getting America Back to School
Throughout the pandemic, the voices urging a return to in-person instruction have not been primarily concerned with kids’ well-being. Many in-person learning advocates made cases for rushed reopenings that were motivated by a desire to get parents back to work and bash the teachers’ unions demanding caution. Their arguments frequently used poor and minority children as mascots, even as these children’s parents overwhelmingly expressed a preference for the safety of continued remote learning.
Jennifer Berkshire, journalist, podcaster, and coauthor of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, observes that the anti-remote-learning discourse has been disproportionately shaped by parents in affluent places where COVID-19 transmission is not such a dire concern. “While parents in poorer communities called for improvements to distance learning, wealthier parents successfully argued that e-learning should not be offered, period,” Berkshire told Jacobin. There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing about “learning loss,” a concept seemingly invented to shame students, alarm administrators, and justify public spending on countless edu-products.
Joe Biden promised to “get America back to school” and do it safely — the best of both worlds. In practice, reopenings have often happened in poorly planned, hazardous ways, causing students and school staff to become sick and lose their lives or loved ones.
But while they were misguided at the height of the pandemic, those calling for in-person instruction did, and do, have a point about the inferiority of remote learning. For anyone who had doubts, it became clear very quickly in 2020 that on-screen schooling does not serve the same vital functions as joining with peers and teachers in physical spaces designed for scholarship. In spite of all the capitalist problems and antidemocratic influences that have shaped the American education system, public schools are still places where students can test out new ideas in congress with others while their most basic needs are met by the state. In my role as an adjustment counselor, I speak to students each day who tell me that they struggled emotionally and “didn’t learn anything” after their classes went virtual.
At this point, it’s unclear when, or how, the cycles of COVID-induced closure and reopening will come to an end. But looking beyond the pandemic, we can admit that two things are simultaneously true: in-person learning is optimal, and special circumstances necessitate that we establish durable structures for remote learning.
COVID-19 was not the first special circumstance that made in-person school difficult or dangerous, and it won’t be the last. For example, we can clearly predict that extreme events will require us to either lock down or evacuate from the towns in which our schools are located. Floods, wildfires, and other disasters are already happening and will continue to happen, even in the best-case scenarios laid out by climate scientists.
Some states and major districts have reacted to the problems with pandemic remote learning by insisting that physical classrooms should be the only K–12 schooling venues. This is a bit like taking an abstinence-only approach to sex education: you can do it that way, but then, when young people do have sex, they are wholly unprepared. If we reject remote schooling outright, then when the need for it arises, mayhem will own the day, and students will continue to suffer from the same preventable problems (such as lack of access to internet) that beset them in 2020.
Powerful edu-businesses are aware that virtual instruction will need to be an option going forward and that somebody has to furnish it. While many politicians, education officials, and media personalities have their heads in the sand, profit-hungry “disruptors” in the education markets are focused on capturing this sector.
The Sharks Are Circling
When states refuse to soberly consider the future of schooling in an increasingly unstable world, they are functionally ceding the territory of remote learning to dystopian ed-tech companies and fraud– and corruption-ridden education management organizations (EMOs).
There are a number of sprawling for-profit EMOs, but by far the most dominant are Pearson and Stride K12. These companies were already poised for an e-learning explosion before COVID-19 hit, simply due to technological advancement. The pandemic was a lucky break, and they’re taking it as an opportunity to funnel a massive share of public education dollars toward their bottom lines.
Both Pearson and Stride K12 offer a variety of programs designed to extract profit from desperate parents and school districts. Pearson, the London-based publishing giant and former Financial Times owner, bet on remote learning when standardized tests failed to generate the cash initially predicted. K12 (now calling itself Stride to signify its intent to monetize a wider swath of the human life cycle) is an EMO that offers both public and private virtual schooling options as well as à la carte products for districts and homeschooling families.
For-profit EMOs have been dogged by reports of fraud, waste, corruption, and poor quality since the early days of e-learning edupreneurship. At the student experience level, problems include grossly inadequate special education services, inflated class sizes, burned-out and underpaid teachers, lifeless cookie-cutter curriculum, and poor learning outcomes and future academic prospects. Because it costs companies very little to process each additional student, virtual schooling is a phenomenally lucrative enterprise. For-profit EMOs have every incentive to overfill classes and spend their revenue on lobbying and advertising rather than instruction.
A quick web search might cause one to wonder why any parent would enroll their child in a program operated by Pearson, Stride, or one of the other for-profit EMOs. And yet, since the onset of COVID-19, their market share has increased dramatically. The reason for this is that it can be hard to find a remote learning option — public, charter, private, or homeschooling supplement — that isn’t somehow tied to one of these companies. And because many districts have failed to invest the resources needed to effectively build and manage their own virtual classrooms, vulnerable kids and parents are turning to the programs whose misleading ads bombard them daily.
Edu-businesses like Pearson and Stride are disaster capitalists in the most literal sense. At the time of this writing, the front page of Stride’s website beckons to Hurricane Ida victims with a special private school promotion. E-learning companies are currently courting parents who feel unsafe sending their children to in-person classrooms amid highly contagious COVID variants and shoddy, piecemeal safety measures.
The field of remote schooling is fluctuating so rapidly that researchers are struggling to form a comprehensive picture of what’s happening. But it’s clear that many districts are either relying on curriculum or management from for-profit EMOs or simply leaving parents in high-risk populations to choose between exposure to potentially deadly disease and legal interventions for chronic absenteeism.
Schooling for the Common Good
When parents enroll their children in for-profit virtual academies, they are most likely forfeiting their membership in a school community managed by an elected board of stakeholders. Unlike brick-and-mortar schools, which frequently house essential community programs, for-profit virtual schools typically only offer programming designed to snag new customers.
Concerned parents are taking these for-profit schools up on their offers to teach children remotely. And the more these companies grow, the weaker our public education system becomes. If public community-based schooling is to be a constant in the lives of all children, regardless of what the future brings, states will need to plan and operate their own virtual learning infrastructure.
Justin Reich, an education researcher who directs MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab and recently authored Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, suggests that all states and large districts should offer a public virtual option supported by the higher education system. Students could be counseled into these programs as needed at the district level, where, as Reich told Jacobin, there are likely to be “fewer incentives to recruit students who won’t be well served by full-time virtual schools.” Climate events aside, students might turn to these programs temporarily when illness, injury, bullying, or other problems make it impossible for them to attend school in person.
Because schools have been tasked with overseeing so many aspects of child welfare, building robust distance-learning infrastructure would require states to think holistically about the needs of kids and families. Successful remote learning requires consistent access to internet and computing technology, meals and clean water, nursing and basic health screenings, counseling, camaraderie with peers, outdoor physical activity, and the ability to study in a peaceful, safe environment with adults who are available to check in. Making these things possible would mean radically ramping up the provision of public goods. This is exactly what we need to be doing in all sectors to prepare for a world increasingly colored by catastrophe.
As exhausted as we feel, leftists and public education advocates need to remain clear-eyed about the future of schooling. While the experiences of the past year have knocked the techno-privatization set onto their hind legs temporarily, Berkshire warns that those voices will make a comeback: “They’ve invested too much to stop now.” We should take advantage of pro-public-school sentiment to demand an education strategy that is both firmly rooted in reality and cognizant of how governments can intervene to make life better for all students.