There’s another virus plaguing our schools

Over the past year our public schools have suffered two pandemics. One has long been evolving; the other hit us suddenly. One burst forth in full fury right here in Minneapolis; the other blew in from China.

Both maladies have hit our schools hard, but in different ways. COVID-19 brought about an abrupt and general school shutdown in spring 2020. The other long-developing condition surged about the same time, accelerating a trend that is transforming our public schools into something that they were never intended to be.

Let’s give this second pandemic a parallel name and call it “Wokeness-19.”

Because of COVID-19 parents have had to scramble and juggle, while trying to negotiate new and unfamiliar educational avenues. Some have done their best to go with the online flow. Others have turned to private school alternatives. Still others have chosen to home-school on their own or through cooperatives. But no matter the option chosen, parents have had to focus on their children’s education much more intently.

All this is a bit like the way COVID-19 also has forced employers and workers to rapidly develop remote-work methods and systems — many of which have functioned well enough that economists expect a large and lasting expansion of the remote-work economy.

Could parents’ larger role in education also prove permanent?

If it does, the change will be in part inspired by our second pandemic, Wokeness-19. As luck would have it, the furor over the death of George Floyd last spring came at a time when the state Department of Education was revising standards for social studies in Minnesota schools. The heated left-right controversies over these benchmarks reflect deep divisions among us.

For example, should the central message of American history echo the much-debated New York Times’ “1619 Project” with its contention that America’s true founding principle was racist, implanting what’s called systemic racism at the heart of the American story? Or should the pivotal year remain 1776, with its self-evident truths and systemic distrust of centralized power?

In addition, something called “Action Civics” is now afoot in our public schools. Already adopted in some states, this project gives academic credit to students who engage in lobbying and protest. Will such projects be political in nature? Of course. Will they have a left-wing or right-wing slant? Take a guess.

There’s nothing new, exactly, with the idea of schools doing a certain amount of indoctrination. There was a time when it was axiomatic that American public schools were agents for “Americanization” — imparting American language, American civics and, yes, American patriotism to students, wherever they came from. Today? Not so much. It’s more often citizens of the world we seem to be shaping.

The 19th century was a time of nation-building for the United States. Thomas Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” was being transformed into a nation devoted to freedom, fighting a Civil War to rid itself of slavery. Public schools were surely a major means of advancing American nationhood.

In those days public schools were also a bastion of a generic Protestantism. Catholics responded by establishing their own parish schools. Today many people of faith abandon public schools because of the absence of any traditional religious sensibility and its replacement with various secular dogmas.

The point is, then as now, there has been general agreement that our public schools should advance a political message. And between the Civil War and the mid-20th century there also was general agreement about what the basic message should be. Today that’s gone. The gradually spreading pandemic that is Wokeness-19 has seen to that.

To be sure, neither parents nor legislators know precisely what’s being taught in any Minnesota public school classroom. That’s a problem without an easy solution. Teachers should not be forced to join police in wearing bodycams to document their performance. If nothing else it would violate the privacy rights of students.

Still, no one should doubt that the long march of the left through many American institutions has included K-12 public schools.

Given that march and its success, could parents’ pandemic-inspired deeper involvement in their children’s educations help restore balance to what students are learning? One hopes so.

Let legislators, bureaucrats and school boards go on determining the taxpayers’ investment per year of each grade of K-12 education. Then let parents direct that per child investment to the school of their choice.

Call it the V-word — voucher, if you must. But think of it as a vaccine — an inoculation against Wokeness-19.

No doubt such a crisis-induced reform would result in greater cultural diversity in publicly funded schools. But it would not, or not merely, be multiculturalism of the sort spread by Wokeness-19. Instead, some parents would choose to direct their piece of the educational pie to faith-based academies. Parents without significant means would be empowered to make choices otherwise unavailable to them. Why should anyone, especially Democrats, oppose that?

It’s said a good crisis should not be wasted. The pandemic-ignited school shutdown and the pandemic-driven school transformation may well have combined to give us just the crisis we need to reimagine the entire enterprise of public education, just as we’re being urged to reimagine policing and public safety.

The original model would remain in place, meaning public funding for K-12 education. But since a major purpose of public education has largely been redefined or redirected, let’s concede our differences and give parents greater control over the process and the results.

No doubt there are risks. But there are also opportunities for many educational alternatives to emerge and flourish.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.

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