Jen Gerson: COVID-19, public education, and a real-time experiment in institutional decline

Thanks to the pandemic, we're all being offered a very hard lesson in the consequences of a collapse in faith in liberal institutions. It's not the revolution many have been hoping for.

What I find so fascinating about the effect of COVID-19 on public schooling is that it is testing one of the fundamental insights of a liberal society: that is, our societies work best when they harness self interest to the greater good. For more than a century, the pursuit of universal high-quality public education has been one of the most efficacious examples of that insight.

Thanks to the pandemic, we're all being granted a very hard lesson in the consequences of its collapse. It's not the revolution many were hoping for. 

The Globe and Mail recently ran a worthwhile piece about how the return to school in the era of COVID-19 is exacerbating existing class, race and social divides. Many mothers, academics, educational experts and the like have been raising concerns about this issue for months. Our governments appear to have put more thought into maintaining safe strip clubs than they have schools. I maintain my position, as stated on The Line last month, that our decision to keep bars open in light of what we now know about the disease demonstrates remarkably skewed priorities. 

So it didn't surprise me to read a long-form article that highlighted the trend of affluent parents opting for in-home learning pods rather than returning to school. 

(In fact, we featured one mother who promised to do exactly that in The Line several weeks ago.) 

There were several sections from the Globe piece that struck a chord and, I thought, were worth highlighting: 

"Munira Khilji, a mother of two in [Toronto’s] Thorncliffe Park, said many parents she knows chose this option because they live in high-rises and don’t want to endure waits of an hour or longer just to take the elevator while pandemic-related capacity limits are in place — and they worry about physical distancing in such a cramped space."

As someone who no longer lives in a high-rise, I honestly had not put much thought into the sheer logistical nightmare of streaming out of a major residential block en masse in time for the school bus. Taking an hour just to get out of the building is untenable with small children. This strikes me as a technical problem, and one that we can and should solve.


"On and offline, the conversation on learning pods often leads to bigger questions of equity: are they classist? Do they further the divide between the haves and the have nots? Shouldn’t parents with enough privilege to put their children in a learning pod harness it to lobby the government to make classrooms safe for all children?"

Let's attempt to answer those questions in order; yes, yes, and maybe. 

On the latter point, Matt Strauss took some flak last week for pointing out that spending large amounts of money retrofitting or expanding schools to address a short-term problem is probably an inefficient use of resources. Children are at a low risk of getting seriously ill with COVID-19. The literature on the effect of schools on the broader rate of community infection appears to be mixed. Resources are, thus, probably better spent protecting the vulnerable and elderly. Significant investments should be directed toward slowing infections in hospitals and long-term-care facilities. 

Certain low-cost measures like masks, increased hand washing, and social distancing are sound goals for schools. I always support the argument that all governments everywhere are terrible and should do better on sheer principle. But spending billions of dollars to reduce class sizes to 15, for example, doubling the number of teachers, or massively expanding or retrofitting existing infrastructure appears to be more about appeasing anxious parents than preventing the spread of COVID-19.

So while I'm amenable to the argument that the privileged liberal classes have an obligation to lobby for safer classrooms, I'm not convinced that we have a clear picture of what that spending ought to look like, or where it could be most effectively directed.

Maybe there are no great answers, here, and no obvious solutions that won't present a downside to another segment of society. All we have is limited data and hard choices. Writer Jonah Goldberg recently mentioned this saying: "A problem without a solution isn’t a problem, it’s simply a fact." I think it applies.

Back to the Globe piece, and this perfect quote from a parent: 

“Nothing is going to marginalize kids more than people like me who could afford a learning pod,” he says. “The bottom line as a parent is I still have to put my kid’s interests above every other point of view or political point of view that I have.” ... They want to raise their children in a just society, but they’ve used their privilege to work against that very goal.

I'm not sure what to say here except this: if your quest for equality requires that I pay taxes and support reforms that make sense to me, I'm on board. But if that vision of equality requires that I withhold what advantages I am able to afford to my children — good fucking luck. 

The Globe story gently tries to frame the equity issues through a racial lens and while I don't think that's invalid, I do think it's incomplete. The primary problem unfolding before us is, very clearly, one of socioeconomic status, and the kind of setbacks the rich can afford to weather in contrast to the poor. And while there is an overlap in this country of rich vs. poor and white vs. non-white, those categories sure as hell don't overlap cleanly. 

Almost all parents of every racial and socio-economic category will marshal every financial and psychological resource available to them for the betterment of their own children. Millions of parents everywhere scrape and do without to afford their children a slightly better education than the one they themselves were given. Mistaking this for a uniquely "white" phenomenon is not only self-evidently incorrect and implicitly racist, it's also deeply parochial. 

This is one of those impulses that unifies all humans — we all want the best possible future for our kids. 

Public education did not begin as a liberal enterprise, per se. In fact, most formal education as it's now practiced can trace its origins to parish schools. But it is impossible, now, to conceive of a modern liberal society that functions without an educated populace. Just as it's difficult to find many individuals who would claim to be better off if they couldn't read or write. 

Society as a whole enjoys immeasurable gains when every child receives an education. This ensures a basic degree of economic and social mobility, which secures peace and prosperity beyond what individual wealth can buy. Public education was so successful that even illiberal states and societies had to follow suit throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in order to compete. 

This is why generations have passed since anyone has seriously debated the fundamental merits of public schooling. We've come to a consensus. What we debate now are details at the edges of the question — how much teachers should be paid, or whether private schools increase or sap public education's effectiveness, for example. We can disagree on the particulars of these points, but at the end of the day, pursuing my own child's interest in a quality educational system is inextricably linked to the common good of all children. 

Or, at least, that was true until COVID-19 hit. 

Whatever critiques one can fairly make of them, when foundational institutions like public education begin to collapse, what we're left with isn't a society grasping toward ever-greater equality. Instead, it is one in which naked self-interest is divorced from collective betterment. In which even the most progressive and broad-minded parents will scramble for a private teacher knowing full well that this will give their children an advantage over their poorer neighbours. They'll feel appropriately bad about it, too. Just not bad enough. 

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It's not hard to draw a similar analogy to the institution of policing. Within the liberal framework it's entirely possible to make real improvements to the way we approach policing. Diverting funding to greater mental-health supports, for example, strikes me as a good idea. But abandon that liberal framework, abolish the police, and what you will get is the system that necessitated policing in the first place: the blood feud, vigilantism, and the neighbourhood milita. I cannot see this as a path toward greater equity or racial harmony. 

It's now quite fashionable to reject liberal values and institutions as the bulwarks of white supremacy — as if all of these virtues and systems and schools were some kind of long con to prop up white dominance. I see very few proponents of this theory seriously contend with its most obvious counterfactual: that liberalism isn't a rampart of white supremacy, but rather it is its most effective constraint. 

What happens when these institutions crumble? I fear that the answer is tribalism, violence — and the perpetual motion of self interest untethered from the commonweal. 

What we get is a regression to the mean of the human spirit. The war of all against all. If you want a little slice of proof, just try finding a private tutor on Facebook. 

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