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The Bottom Line Preparing to Reopen Schools

The American Enterprise Institute just released its Blueprint for Back to School  report, recommending that state and federal leaders be prepared for another atypical school year by offering regulatory flexibility regarding seat time, graduation requirements, and procurement rules to permit schools to remain operational in unprecedented circumstances.

They note that a num­ber of public health officials, including the “habitu­ally cautious” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expect that schools will likely be able to reopen this fall.  The authors conclude that since reopening in a safe manner will involve “novel challenges” leaders must “begin planning immediately.”

The blueprint was coauthored by AEI visiting fellow John Bailey, a former policy aide in the George W. Bush White House, and Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies. The study was built upon these guiding principles:

  • While governors have the authority to close and open schools, these decisions are best made by consulting with those closest to the problem, including school leaders, health officials, and community leaders.
  • Schools are responsible for meeting the needs of all students, including the distinctive needs of students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English language learners.
  • Schools are obliged to find ways to serve all students, even during times of disruption when remote learning requires students to connect from home.
  • Given that school systems cannot reasonably have been expected to plan for the current situation, state and federal officials must help provide the resources schools need to help weather the crisis.

The blueprint provides crucial insights that can guide policymakers, education and community leaders, and federal officials in their planning to reopen schools.  Two issues that go beyond the current crisis deserve special emphasis.

The first issue is teacher certification requirements. The blueprint proposes that if vulnerable teachers are not able to go back to school, schools will need to fill that void.  They suggest loosening the handcuffs on recruiting across state boarders. 

We at ACTE recommend taking this further.  Certification laws initially might have had merit, but they no longer achieve their intended purpose and, in fact, can do more harm than good.  Not only do they not guarantee a quality teacher in every classroom or quality principal in every school, they are tending to discourage our best and brightest from a wide array of backgrounds from even entering the education profession.

The second issue deserving special attention is collective bargaining agreements. AEI explains that the contractual agreements could cause constraints that will prohibit the ability to teach students and put lives at risk during the Coronavirus crisis.  The blueprint recommends modifications to contractual agreements to allow at-risk teachers to continue working, statewide frameworks for flexibility around staffing and labor issues, and flexibility over scheduling and hours for the 2020-21 school year.

Again, we believe that even more substantial reforms are needed regarding teacher unions if our schools are to be effective. By their very nature, unions impose a major constraint on efforts to improve our schools. We believe that addressing this issue has two major components. First, the most obvious answer would be to pass legislation limiting union protections of teacher seniority and tenure, which right-to-work legislation has in part accomplished. Second, we believe that working with teacher unions requires effective leadership at the principal, superintendent, and board levels of management. Therefore, we must address the way we select and train our education leaders. We have a plan for that.

As we prepare to send our children back to school, we need to address the pressing issues brought about by the Coronavirus. But let’s not forget about the systemic changes needed to make our educational system effective in the long term. 

Bailey Takacs

Development Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs served as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.
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