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Opinion: Teachers could benefit from pandemic reforms

Christian Barnard

Michigan legislators are likely to implement budget stabilization funding (or “hold harmless” funding) for districts, a provision that could be unfair to schools that have attracted more students because of their effective responses to the pandemic. Pushed by state teachers unions, this funding measure has school choice advocates frustrated. Similar kinds of bitter political battles are playing out nationwide. 

Some school choice proponents are accusing teacher associations of resisting change and public safety adaptations to protect their own paychecks, while some teacher union representatives insist that their opponents are recklessly trying to undermine the public education system and endanger kids and teachers. 

But it is a mistake for education reformers to intentionally alienate teachers in dealing with the current crisis and the future of education — because their goals are far more aligned than they may appear. Instead, they should seek to win teachers over by demonstrating how their proposals would generate long-term benefits for educators and students alike.

The seemingly free-for-all environment can feel threatening to educators, and that’s a problem, Barnard writes.

With the growth of school choice and other policy innovations over the last few decades, the United States has already gotten a taste of how the education system can be disrupted to better serve both educators and families. Now, the pandemic is driving things further, with unprecedented numbers of families exploring virtual schooling and homeschooling “pods” (essentially homeschooling co-ops for small pools of families). Admittedly, this seemingly free-for-all environment can feel threatening to educators, and that’s a problem.

From a political strategy perspective alone, it’s foolish to threaten teachers. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Director of Education Policy Studies Frederick Hess frequently points out, teachers are highly respected by the American public and wield substantial political power. Alienate them, and the ability to form the needed coalitions around systematic education reform is undermined.

But it’s also often unnecessary to pick fights with teachers. Especially when, as in many cases, they could be your allies. The education status quo has failed educators as often as it has failed families. Decades of flat salaries despite increasing education funding, poorly managed public retirement systems that only favor a small group of senior teachers, classroom micromanagement driven by high-stakes testing — the list of policy failures that have negatively impacted teachers is long.

To be fair, teachers and district school administrators are right to be concerned about how immediate coronavirus responses, such as sending some public education funds directly to families and allowing more education providers to enter into the market, could affect them in the short-run as they are already grappling with the pandemic. But in the long-term, teachers have as much to gain from an overhaul of the current system as families do.

And here’s where reformers and education choice proponents have much to offer. Research suggests that school choice competition can lead to better compensation for teachers. Moreover, the influence of charter and magnet schools, student-based funding, online learning and other education reforms have challenged conventional understandings of what teaching should look like and what it means to be a “good teacher.”

Currently, many teachers are receiving offers from families to facilitate learning pods for their kids in the fall that in some cases rival their school salaries. In response, some public schools are figuring out how they could facilitate learning pods themselves to enable broader access. Some experts are starting to formalize the concept of “charter teachers,” who could be authorized, like charter schools, by school districts or state education boards to provide free education directly to families in different environments.

These innovations and others — if allowed to further flourish after the pandemic — could present better earnings potential for teachers, provide a much-needed check on top-down curriculum requirements and standardized testing, and give power back to the educators and families who are best-situated to know what students need.

The American public is questioning now more than ever why more education dollars aren’t making it into teacher paychecks and why so many educators are burning out, and they’re coming up with potential solutions. Improving K-12 learning requires that all stakeholders abandon zero-sum thinking. Reformers and school choice advocates would be wise to listen to teachers and demonstrate how their proposals can make them better off.

Similarly, teachers need to recognize that the institution they are protecting doesn’t always return the favor.

Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a senior contributor with Young Voices.