There are a number of forces pushing against the persistence of public education as a unifying institution, some new and some old:
- the collapse of birthrates,
- tottering local and state budgets
- the shift of political economy towards health care and transfers to older people
- a diminishment of broader social cohesion, including national and regional identity
- exit of well-educated women into other professions
- a consumer mentality towards services from parents
- increasing fear of litigation from schools
- the extremes of social justice ideology, that tends to assert that education is for “them” and not “us”
- a technocratic insistence that all human problems can be resolved simply as a matter of data and quantity
- increasingly powerful and immersive technology, against which in person experiences struggle to compete
- incoherence around what kinds of skills, values and knowledge the culture thinks it is worthwhile for children to acquire.
Against all these forces, the main resistance was simply that parents expected public schools to exist, for their own benefit as well as their kids’, and were willing to pay quite a bit in political and personal terms for them to continue to do so. Like a group of actors standing unaware on a stage trapdoor , the forces pulling downward can grow with only a bit of creak in the boards until suddenly the trapdoor is opened and down Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin and Don Giovanni all fall.
The decision this fall to keep American schools closed and to shift to remote learning, even in areas with a contained epidemic, opened up the trapdoor, and I have a feeling that school districts and teachers’ unions will have a hard time henceforth keeping it closed.