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Nora de la Cour is a high school teacher and writer. This article about the sham of for-profit remote instruction appeared in Jacobin. Study after study has demonstrated the poor results of virtual instruction, but the research does not deter the greedy entrepreneurs who see the profit in virtual charter schools. You may recall the recent press release from the National Alliance for Charter Schools about how charter schools increased enrollment by 250,000 during the pandemic; what the press release didn’t admit was that the “increase” was due entirely to growth in virtual charter enrollments, which may turn out to be a temporary response to the pandemic.
De la Cour sees the push for for-profit remote learning as another front in the privatization movement.
In spring of 2020, we saw signs that billionaires and neoliberal politicians were looking to use the COVID-19 lockdown to finally eliminate one of the last remaining venues where Americans convene in the practice of democratic self-governance: the brick-and-mortar schoolhouse.
Plutocrat-funded techno-optimists giddily suggested we use the temporary requirement of virtual learning to test-drive modelsthat give families more “flexibility” and “freedom.” Then-governor Andrew Cuomo formed a partnership between New York state and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore a post-pandemic future without “all these physical classrooms.” Betsy DeVos announced $180 million in grants for states to “rethink” K–12 learning, and her cohort of privatization pushers began licking their chops.
Advocates of public education were rightly horrified, recognizing that this would amount to a further hollowing out of one of our last remaining public goods. Fortunately, a combination of factors turned the discourse emphatically back in favor of preserving in-person K–12 learning as the American standard — for now.
The nearly universal problems with remote instruction last year made it politically impossible for the privatization crew to continue arguing that e-learning is the glittery new frontier of educational progress. In fact, survey data shows that a majority of parents disapprove of any kind of change to traditional schooling. This is despite a relentless onslaught of rhetorical attacks on public schools — from the bipartisan vilification of teachers’ unions to right-wing attempts to use mask mandates and critical race theory to breed ill will among parents. The term “school choice” has apparently become so distasteful that school choice conservatives are looking to rebrand their body blows to public education as a “school freedom” and “parents’ rights” movement. They’re winning legislative battles in diverse states, but they’re losing the war for public opinion.
It’s widely accepted that in-person schools meet critical developmental needs and are necessary for most students. Nevertheless, the pandemic has swiftly accelerated the expansion of digital instruction. Public education advocates are now at a crossroads. We can either proactively define the relationship between remote and in-person schooling, or we can watch from the sidelines as private companies claim a monopoly over distance learning and use it to undermine public education.
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