CONWAY: Education Freedom Can Stop Unnecessary School Closures

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Cooper Conway Contributor
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Dark hallways, quiet classrooms, and empty playgrounds were supposed to be a short-term feature of pandemic-related school closures. Now, many see these overextended closures for what they were: another opportunity for teacher unions to establish school shutdowns as the new paradigm in American education.

Portland Public Schools, the largest district in Oregon, recently provided a textbook example. From Nov. 1–26, over 45,000 students were locked out of their local schools due to a Portland Association of Teachers strike. It was jokingly dubbed No-School November, but for many families who know their children’s mental health and academic achievement are at stake, there’s nothing funny about it. 

What happened in Portland Public Schools is becoming a national trend. But it doesn’t have to.

If states increase educational freedom by passing school choice policies, they can empower parents to counteract school closures and ensure continued access to education for their children. 

Before 2018, school closures were few and far between, with only around fifty strikes taking place in the preceding decades. But 2018 saw the rise of the Red for Ed movement, which saw national teachers unions mobilize to strike for issues such as pension reform and increased pay. This disruption resulted in economic benefits for teachers, who were rewarded for behavior that undermined student learning. Around 30 strikes and subsequent school closures have occurred in the last five years. This year has particularly been bad, as strikes in large districts like Oakland and Los Angeles have adversely impacted hundreds of thousands of students and families. 

In addition to the strike-induced school shutdowns, COVID-19 allowed another opportunity for teachers unions to exert influence by prolonging school closures and pressuring politicians for significant financial concessions. Policy attempts to prevent extended school closures have not been promising. Two decades of learning progress have been wiped out, the achievement gap grows more expansive, and the mental health crisis only worsens as students affected by continuous closures remain isolated from friends. 

The consequences of our failure to reverse the harms of sustained school shutdowns don’t stop there, as our students now suffer from widespread chronic absenteeism. Indeed, students across the country are missing school at higher rates than before the pandemic, further inhibiting their ability to make up for the widespread learning loss that will affect their job and quality of life prospects. But who can blame them? Why would students prioritize showing up to school if their teachers don’t hold themselves to the same standard? 

The extent of these impacts on students is not yet fully known, but parents aren’t dumb: they know who is to blame when their students are locked out of school. Teachers unions have grown overconfident, thinking that each time their strikes close down schools, parents will overlook the fact that a generation of students aren’t being provided with the education they deserve.

Over the past three years, education freedom has swept across the states, empowering families with funding to send their children to whatever schools work best for them. Nathan Cunneen, a communications specialist and beneficiary of education choice, describes the current school choice movement as akin to a sports dynasty that has just gone on a three-peat. Cunneen is correct in his analysis, as the past three years of education choice have made great strides toward disrupting a system that rewards special interests for disrupting student learning. 

Still, more educational freedom is needed.

In years to come, places like Portland and the state of Oregon must pass pro-education freedom policies in the form of public and private school choice to give families more options. By extending educational freedom to families like those suffering under the strike in Portland, parents can provide their children with an academic lifeline to help them recover from learning loss while also shaping a system that stops these strikes from happening ever again.

The mass exodus of families during teacher strikes will be too much for the traditional public school system to bear. Either they’ll rein in the unions and deliver better educational outcomes, or they’ll starve for lack of funding. 

Cooper Conway is a William E. Simon National Policy Fellow at 50CAN, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Student Award Center, and a contributor at Young Voices, where he focuses on education reform. He lives in the Portland metro area. Follow him on Twitter @CooperConway1.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.