COVID-19 Shutdown: A Crash Course in Problems with Schools’ Over-Regulation

Tracey Pucci helps her son Foxton Harding, 12, with a school assignment for Northshore Middle School, which moved to online-only schooling for two weeks due to coronavirus concerns, at their home in Bothell, Washington, March 11, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
Blunderbuss rules can fuel paralysis among educational leaders.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T his spring was a dismal one for America’s schools. The Center for Reinventing Public Education looked at 477 school districts and found that, even as the school year was winding down, just one in three expected all teachers to deliver instruction. Education Week has reported that teachers say more than one in five students went absent without a trace when schools closed.

At the same time, there were occasional bright spots. The Silicon Schools Fund, which supports more than 50 charter and private schools in California, reported that 85 percent of its schools were taking attendance, 100 percent were providing online instruction, and 70 percent were grading student work. In New York, the acclaimed, 45-school Success Academy Charter School Network offered another inspiring example. As author Robert Pondiscio has documented, two months after shutdown, Success Academy was “close to replicating itself remotely, with full days of instruction.” CEO Eva Moskowitz has noted that Success Academy’s average daily attendance held steady at 97 percent during the shutdown.

But such examples were more the exception than the rule. Indeed, traditional school systems governed by rules that are supposed to ensure they are responsible and responsive too often proved to be neither. In fact, the rules intended to ensure that schools educate all students frequently seemed, in practice, to strip school systems of the flexibility and agency they sorely needed this spring.

Of course, rightfully, there are extensive state and federal laws intended to ensure equitable schooling for low-income students, students with special needs, and other vulnerable youth. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) promises students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education”; Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance to education agencies serving low-income students; and a whole shelf of statutes and civil-rights law exists to ensure equal access to education.

So far, so good. While all of these policies were adopted with admirable intentions, though, this spring offered a clinic in how they can wind up burying student needs and sensible school leadership under a mountain of bureaucracy and legal anxiety. For instance, in March, Washington State’s 25,000-student Northshore School District was one of the nation’s first large districts to enact a robust distance-learning plan, acquiring 4,000 devices and additional Internet access in order to serve low-income students. But district officials then felt obliged to pause the plan for fear it “risked running afoul of state and federal mandates for providing equitable services.”

Oregon similarly hit pause on learning this March — even for virtual schools (i.e., schools that are 100 percent remote). Why? The spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education explained at the time that school systems “cannot open a brick-and-mortar school in Oregon unless it is accessible to every student in their school district. The same rules apply to an online school.” In other words, since the state’s traditional school districts weren’t yet ready to educate their students, learning had to be stopped for other students. (An even less savory explanation was the fear that families might switch from traditional schools to virtual ones, if allowed to choose.)

Philadelphia’s school system evinced its commitment to equity by ordering educators not to teach. In a March 17th letter to principals, the school-district leadership explained that teachers should not teach, take attendance, or evaluate student work, owing to concerns that “if that’s not available to all children, we cannot make that available to some.” Eventually, in April, school-district leadership declared it would wait to begin formal, online instruction until early May (nearly two months after schools closed) in order to have time to expand Internet access.

In Virginia, the Arlington Public Schools informed parents that students wouldn’t be taught any new concepts during the remainder of this academic year. Instead, during the school closures, students’ learning plans will “focus on previously introduced learning” from the prior academic quarters, when they were physically in school. In other words, to avoid any equity issues, the district ordered that students be taught the same things over and over.

In May, the aforementioned Center for Reinventing Public Education found that nearly every state sought to clarify special-education laws for schools — especially the importance of devising customized education plans, creating evaluation timelines, and providing services. But only 18 states actually required districts to include special education in their distance-learning plans. Again: Why? As the CRPE analysts observed, “some states may be reluctant to give specific guidance to districts, or to do so on public-facing websites, . . . out of concern that their advice could expose them to lawsuits.”

In instance after instance, rather than catalyzing innovative efforts to ensure that all kids were well served, the latticework of rules led to hesitancy and risk aversion. Whatever the rhetorical commitment to educating all students, the behavior of state and district officials suggested that much education was lost as they engaged in defensive posturing or awaited explicit assurance from above that they had permission to educate kids. The result should prompt reconsideration regarding the consequences of so many mandates intended to protect students.

Most of the time, education policymaking suffers from a fundamental asymmetry. It’s easy to make the case for expansive new rules, since the problems those rules seek to address can be so visible. Meanwhile, concerns that rules will fuel inertia or rigidity can come across as callous or abstract. But one of the things this spring has shown is how blunderbuss rules can fuel paralysis among educational leaders. When policies designed to protect America’s students cause educational leaders to tell teachers not to educate kids, it’s time to give these rules a closer look.

Frederick M. HessMr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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