If you have school-age children, you may be wondering if they’ll ever get an education. On Tuesday the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest education union, threatened “safety strikes” if reopening plans aren’t to its liking. Some state and local governments are insisting that public K-12 schooling this fall be conducted online three to five days a week and imposing stringent conditions on those students who actually make it to the classroom.
Yet there are three reasons to be optimistic about the future of education. First, many parents will be more prepared to home-school their kids than they were in the spring. They or their hired teachers will do a better job of educating children, in many cases, than the public schools.
Second, once the pandemic ends, many parents, perhaps millions, will have a new appreciation of how mediocre a job the public schools were doing. They will continue home-schooling, switch to a private school, or push hard to end restrictions on the growth of charter schools. Third, as schools sit empty and homebound teachers draw their regular salaries for less effective work, there will be more opposition to more funding for public schools, which, in turn, will make local school boards amenable to lower-cost options such as charter schools. . . .
Public schools are dominant because they don’t need to compete for funds. Taxpayers are forced to finance them. If a family decides to take a child out of the local public school, thereby saving the school board the cost of educating that child, the family gets no tax break, no rebate. If a family finds a cheap private school that charges $8,000 in annual tuition, sending the child there makes economic sense only if the family values the private education by at least $8,000 more than they value the public education. That’s a high hurdle for most parents.
But with public schools’ shift to online instruction, the equation changes dramatically for two reasons. First, the public schools have done a poor job of adjusting to the new reality. Second, and possibly more important, online instruction eliminates arguably the most valuable service provided by public schools: child care. On net, therefore, the value of the online public school is much lower, especially for young children, than the value of in-person public school.
Many will opt instead to home-school. This summer, parents have had time to plan for the fall. Many of them are forming “learning pods,” which are small groups of families getting together to hire a teacher or a tutor to teach their kids.
What if, as I predict, home-schooling works, on average, better than the public schools before the pandemic? Once the pandemic ends, many parents will want to continue with home-schooling. A poll taken in May of 626 parents found 40.8% of them saying they were more likely than before the pandemic to enroll their child in “a home school, a neighborhood home-school co-op, or a virtual school” once the lockdowns ended. There are now about 56 million children in K-12 schools. Before the pandemic, an estimated two million children were home-schooled. If even a third of the 40.8% of parents who said they might take it up followed through, the number of home-schooled children would almost quadruple.
That’s the dream.
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