Empty classroom
Susan Pendergrass

Listen carefully. Do you hear that? It’s the ground shifting beneath the public education establishment. Families across the country are getting ready for back to school season, and they’ve had it with the inadequate plans being rolled out by their districts. They’re taking matters into their own hands. And I’m not just talking about the elite parents described in a New York Times article.

I was in the produce section of a grocery store in a fairly rural school district yesterday and overheard two grandmothers discussing what they are going to do. These ladies are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren—not uncommon in rural areas—and they were talking about joining a micro-school being set up by a teacher on their street. Or they may join a group of students that are going to meet at their church. These children from a small group of families will either have a Zootor (A Zoom tutor who facilitates virtual education as the in-person guide) or have a teacher provide instruction in person. Like so many in my nonscientific poll, they said that what the district provided last spring was absolutely terrible. Regardless of their resources, they’re going to figure out a solution that isn’t more of that.

Here is the problem: We have an epic disconnect between how education is funded and how it is being delivered this year. We have about 100,000 school buildings across this country that have been largely unused for the past six months and may or may not be used for the next six. Are we keeping the lights on in them? Are we keeping them cool enough for the minimal personnel still using them? Are we keeping the full staff of bus drivers and custodians? And, given that the answer to all of these questions is probably “yes,” are we then asking parents and primary caregivers to go out of pocket to get an education for their children that is supposed to be provided by their district? Are we willing to even discuss making changes to the collection of property taxes and the distribution of state education funds in this new reality?

One thing that I know to be true—when called, parents show up. Of course, there are far too many children stuck in horrific households and we all need to make sure that they have safe places to be. But on the whole, parents will go to great lengths for their children. The grace given to their school districts last spring is beginning to wear very thin. The daily uncertainty driven by overdue and underdefined reopening plans is causing parents to figure it out on their own or with their friends and neighbors.

The money conversation is sure to follow. While the keepers of the pre-pandemic status quo would like to hold their breath, wait for this to pass, and get back to the way things were, there have been too many fundamental changes in the delivery of public education for that to happen without resistance. A significant amount of power has shifted into parents’ hands and, like it or not, it won’t be long before parents start talking about a shift in funding methods.

It’s been clear to me for decades that parents want direct control of at least some public education dollars. But they’ve been facing an impenetrable wall of the public education establishment that dictates how things “must be done.” Parents are starting to get a peek over the wall, and I look forward to seeing how the rest of that story unfolds.


About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.