Month: August 2020

Why should educators bet their lives on “trust me” behavior?

In the dangerous rush to get teachers and students back into classrooms prematurely, pages upon pages of health and safety guidelines and protocols have been written by school districts and colleges to reassure educators and parents. But as long as the pandemic continues to pose a deadly threat, even scientifically and medically based guidelines aren’t enough to bolster confidence.

A faculty member at Texas State University in San Marcos, which reopened this week, explained why.

“I feel like all the school reopening plans are based on models of idealized human behavior as opposed to real human behavior. They’re predicated on the assumption that people will follow the rules,” Nicole Taylor, associate professor of anthropology, told The Texas Tribune.

How rash is that assumption? Let us recite but a few examples.

Several prominent universities in other states opened and were soon forced to reclose their doors after many students made it clear they were more interested in partying than social distancing. Unfortunately, it’s not just students.

In Texas, Gov. Abbott’s mask-wearing order is being widely ignored by people of all ages. Some sheriffs have even openly refused to enforce it, and the governor is seemingly powerless to do anything about it.

A few months ago, you may remember, a couple of state legislators, for selfish, political reasons, got haircuts in open, political defiance of Abbott’s order that had temporarily closed barber shops and hair salons. They skated untouched, but a hair salon owner in Dallas reopened prematurely and got put in jail – until Abbott quickly caved in and the Texas Supreme Court ordered her release.

Now, that same hair salon owner plans to use her overnight fame as a rule-breaker to run for the state Senate and may get elected.

At least one school superintendent in Texas has told parents concerned about the safety of their children that he didn’t “believe” in masks. He refused to wear one during a meeting and said he would let school employees and students decide whether to wear them, despite the governor’s order.

Refusing to wear a mask has become a political badge of “honor” for Texans who are happy to risk our country’s future with four more years of a President Trump while all but ignoring a deadly disease, as Trump has mostly done.

To make matters worse, some school districts and universities are relying on students and employees to voluntarily self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before they come to campus. This “trust me” loophole is huge.

Schools and universities can – and should — publish guidelines and protocols about masks, social distancing and hand-washing. But human behavior is critical, and many educators aren’t willing to bet their lives on that.

Clay Robison

Students and educators are afterthoughts for Trump, until he needs them

Despite President Trump’s war against the U.S. Postal Service, his reelection campaign chose that form of delivery to mistakenly send my wife a “Keep America Great” fund-raising appeal. I intercepted it before she had a chance to trash it because I wanted to see what was on the president’s mind, other than reelection and, of course, the education of America’s children. After all, how do you keep America great without supporting a strong public education system?

Turns out the letter and an enclosed survey, addressed to “Patriotic Conservative,” said not a word about the education of America’s children. The president had other priorities to trumpet. Like attacking the World Health Organization, China and Planned Parenthood. Like lying about the “fraud and abuse” in voting-by-mail and the “dangerous caravans” of refugees at the Mexican border.

He also wanted to know what Patriotic Conservative thought about designating Antifa as a terrorist organization and whether President Trump’s performance in office had lived up to his/her expectations.

And then there was this question, “In your opinion, has the media been truthful in its reporting on President Trump?” (The presidential skin is still thin.)

Trump also lied in his letter about “moving swiftly to revive the American economy while battling a once-in-a-century pandemic unleashed by the Communist Chinese.” The Chinese didn’t unleash it, and Trump has spent more time ignoring and downplaying the severity of the coronavirus than he has trying to fight it.

Once the coronavirus is brought under control, with little thanks to Trump, education will be key to reviving the American economy, and Trump didn’t address education at all in his fund-raising appeal. He didn’t because his only interest in education is privatizing public schools and, now that his reelection campaign is struggling, using students and educators as political props in a dangerous charade to fool voters into thinking the country is returning to normal.

The reopening of schools is essential to that charade, and that is why Trump is pressuring governors and school districts around the country to open prematurely for in-person instruction while thousands of Americans are still being infected and dying from COVID-19.

Many schools around the country have reopened and then soon shut down again with the discovery of infections that were endangering the health of students, educators and their families. But Trump persists.

How many educators and students do we want to see sacrificed? The answer is zero.

Clay Robison

New study documents high rate of charter school failures

Another important report on problems with charter schools has been released, although attention to it has been diverted by the continuing controversy over reopening schools during a deadly pandemic.

This study by the Network for Public Education found that more than one-fourth of the charter schools that opened around the country between 1999 and 2017 had closed after operating for only five years and about half had closed after 15 years, displacing more than 867,000 students.

As reported in the Washington Post, the study, which drew on information from the U.S. Department of Education, also found that in three of the poorest cities in the country – Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee – more charters closed in areas with higher rates of poverty than in areas with less poverty.

An earlier study by the same organization, a nonprofit co-founded by public education activist Diane Ravitch, found that the federal government had wasted as much as $1 billion on charters that had never opened or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons.

Remember, charters receive tax dollars but are operated like private schools, with boards that are unaccountable to the public and may not even be located in the same state as the schools they control. Overall, in terms of academic performance, charters are no better than traditional public schools, and many are much worse.

The Network for Public Education also has determined that the federal government’s regulation of public spending on charters has been lax and that the state with the most charters to receive federal funding but never open is Michigan, home to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who promotes charters as part of her school privatization agenda.

In Texas, charters received almost $3 billion in state revenue in 2019, and much of that went to charters operated by for-profit management organizations. Every tax dollar they receive is a state tax dollar taken away from an under-funded, neighborhood public school. And those under-funded public schools are where the vast majority of Texas school children will continue to be educated, including during health crises, such as this one, which stretch school budgets even thinner.

Not surprisingly, the new report concluded that this is no time to continue spending tax dollars on new charters.

“Federal, state and local governments should implement a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools,” the report said. “The high odds of charter school failure, combined with the fiscal constraints we face due to an economic downturn and the novel coronavirus pandemic, mean it is too risky for tax dollars to continue to flow into the charter sector.”

New report finds high closure rates for charter schools over time

Clay Robison

When are four weeks of virtual-only learning not four weeks of virtual-only learning?

You may have been reading news reports about how school districts can provide virtual-only learning for the first four weeks of the fall semester – eight weeks, with a state waiver – to protect students and educators from exposure as thousands of Texans continue to contract the often-deadly coronavirus.

That means, even if districts are beginning school this week or next, as many are, there will be a built-in safety cushion. Or so the governor and the Texas Education Agency would like us to believe. But with the health of 5.5 million school kids and more than 600,000 school employees and their families on the line, the arbitrary deadlines imposed on districts by TEA amount to little more than a politically driven guessing game. No one really knows when it will be safe to reopen school doors.

Also often lost in the headlines and news summaries is the fact that, four-week virtual guidelines notwithstanding, districts will have to provide in-person classroom instruction on the first day of school to any students who request it — or risk losing state funding. That requirement is also in the TEA directives, and it means there will have to be enough teachers and support staff on school campuses from day one to meet the demand for in-person instruction, regardless of how large it may be.

Also missing from some news reports is the additional fact that some districts are requiring teachers to provide their virtual instruction from their classrooms, not from their homes. The students can stay home, where it is easier to avoid the pandemic, but not the teachers.

The scary situation facing Texas educators right now makes for something of a riddle, and not an amusing one. When are four weeks of virtual-only learning not really four weeks of virtual-only learning? The answer: When Gov. Abbott and the Texas Education Agency have something to do with it.

The governor needs to stop the dangerous guessing game and issue an order prohibiting any more school openings until after Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. After that date, districts should be allowed to reopen buildings to in-person instruction only after consultation with local health authorities, school employees and parents and with strict safety standards enforced. Districts that choose to provide only online instruction must not be penalized with a loss of state funding.

Clay Robison