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Column: Pandemic reveals our broken education system

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 7/27/2020 10:10:18 PM
Modified: 7/27/2020 10:10:12 PM

In a recent New Yorker essay, Lawrence Wright observed that “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places.”

One of the broken places we are now seeing is the unevenness of our country’s public education system. The recent emergency closing of schools and the remote learning that followed make it clear that opportunities are not equitable. They are linked to the ability of parents to provide extra support for their children in the form of technology, tutoring and time. And based on recent reports about how affluent parents are responding to this coming year’s school plans, the playing field is going to get more uneven.

Earlier this month, Washington Post writers Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson described an emerging trend among affluent parents: banding together to hire teachers to offer instruction in each other’s homes. Variously called “pandemic pods” or “micro-schools,” this arrangement provides children with a peer group to join them in their schoolwork and a trained educator to ensure that they stay engaged. It also enables parents who can afford this setup to go back to work or to work more effectively from home.

The notion of parents with mutual interests banding together to help support their children is not unusual. Both of my daughters participated on high school teams led by coaches who persuaded parents to pool resources to buy equipment that supplemented the school budget and commit their time to support the team. These kinds of experiences are not unique. I have many friends whose children participated on traveling soccer teams, AAU basketball programs, and swimming programs that required their fundraising, their engagement and their time.

This pooling of parent resources extends beyond athletics, from hiring a local storyteller and musician to provide weekly enrichment sessions for our preschoolers to community music programs, church programs and arts programs led by volunteers and paid for by sharing resources.

Parents also provide their children with learning opportunities by introducing them to activities they enjoy — trips to museums and parks and outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, camping, biking and hiking. Opportunities like these broaden the horizons of children and often connect them with other families and children with similar interests.

All of these instances of pooling resources seem like a natural part of parenting. Somehow, though, pooling resources with other parents to hire a teacher feels different. The Washington Post article captured this sense of unease with a couple of examples: A Portland, Ore., parent, Laura Sutherland, was reluctant to send her 6-year-old daughter back to school “because of safety concerns,” even though she knew from her spring experiences that her daughter would need supervision while learning from home. But Sutherland said she would quit her job — and struggle financially — to help her daughter before she would hire someone from the outside because it seemed “really privileged” to do so. Katie Franklin, a Fairfax, Va., parent shared these concerns. But she was not going to let them get in her way. “We can pay,” she said. “We know others can’t, and there will be a gap, and that’s unfortunate.”

This shines a light on an underlying reality of our existing school funding system. Parents whose wealth makes it possible for them to live in communities where school spending is higher, schools are better and opportunities are better for their children know there is a gap, and they know it’s unfortunate, and they largely agree it is unfair. But these same parents may be reluctant to pay higher taxes to close that unfortunate gap.

L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology of education professor at New York University, acknowledges that most parents “will act in the interest of their child and you can’t tell them not to,” but he sees the pooled hiring of teachers as yet another example of how “children with affluent parents and connections get ahead even as the system makes it harder for other children.” His only wish is that all parents would “act in the interest of your child, and add some equity to it.”

Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to convince taxpayers that the playing field is not level, and that it should be level, and the way to achieve that is to raise taxes.

But money alone cannot level the playing field. There is another broken place that the pandemic’s X-ray is revealing to us: The nature of work needs to change so that all parents have the time and energy they need to raise children.

Time and energy are hard to come by in all households today, but they are especially difficult to come by in lower-income households where parents’ work schedules are unpredictable and where parents expend all of their energy working long hours at low-wage jobs. Legislators can provide money if voters are willing, but only a restructuring of the economy can change the workplace so that parents have the time to spend with their children and the energy to use that time to their children’s advantage.

Maybe the pandemic’s X-ray will encourage employers to look at the long-term benefits of assuring the work/life balance of their workforce instead of the short-term benefits of the bottom line. If so, it will help close the opportunity gap at least as much as more money for social services.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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