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The politics of going back to school amid the pandemic

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 7/16/2020, 2:58 p.m.

There’s something perniciously debilitating about arrogant behavior, particularly such behavior when the negative stakes are so high. Doing it “your way,” without even evaluating “your way” against the plan of others who’ve already faced the same monster and survived, is usually a sure way to disaster. Looking at the current world numbers concerning the COVID-19 virus and the numbers emanating from the U.S.A., one cannot see any challenge to that wisdom.

We look exceptional today only in our obstinacy, not our problem solving.

And the beat continues to go on with a universally accepted social value, public education. The POTUS and White House officials are currently in bully-pulpit mode demanding that the rest of American society follow their cock-eyed lead in planning a grand opening of all public schools in the country according to the regular fall schedule. But we all should beware of following the blind pigs into the tunnel. The pigs’ hunger may surely guide them forward into the barbed wire surrounding the food source, but how does following another’s nose for personal satisfaction help us escape being cut and slashed into handicapped mounds without ever seeing the goals we sought?

Public education in this country is part of what we call concurrent power, i.e., both the federal government and the states share authority over a common social good. Concurrency also includes police power (there are both federal and state police), elections (both the federal government and the states have authority over elections—though states have more), and public education. Though that is the case, there are details in concurrency that cannot be ignored. For example, though the POTUS has recently made a lot of noise as if it is an accepted fact that he and the White House have the ultimate authority over public education in this country, he is very sadly incorrect.

The federal government, except in very specific areas, cannot order public schools to do anything that the schools cannot ignore. The Brown vs. Board decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court is one of those exceptions. Otherwise, school operations, authority and decision-making is and will remain in the hands of state and local governments.

The POTUS’ demands that public schools immediately open this fall (2020) is mere puffery and perhaps a personal wet dream of number 45, but those demands have no clout in the real world. In fact, not even such orders from state governors fare much better. Public schools are essentially run by district-elected school boards. Even governors’ orders cannot override them, except in very special circumstances. Re-opening public schools is not one of those special circumstances.

And to be even more specific, even the school boards can be checkmated by those who are really in charge of opening or closing public school—the state and district teachers’ unions.

Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner, reportedly just ordered L.A. schools to get ready for a cautious fall, 2020, re-opening. This is in the midst of wide-spread public fear and confusion over whether the schools will be safe for Los Angeles’ children. Thus far, though they have spoken loudly during the George Floyd demonstrations, there has been only minimal coverage of the opinions of the L.A. Teachers’ Union and assorted groups.

That will change very soon and very dramatically. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) Union, while clearly considering the safety of the district’s children, has one specific clientele—the district’s professional teachers and teaching assistants. Unless the UTLA is firmly convinced that re-opening schools anytime this fall will be safe for the teachers, there will be no opening of schools.

This cannot be overstated. It’s not the POTUS, it’s not the U.S. Secretary of Education. It is not even the California State Superintendent of Education, nor the L.A. Board of Education that will determine whether public schools open this fall. The determining entity is and will continue to be the UTLA, just as it will be similar teachers’ unions in all other states.

Please, let us not get this confused.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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