Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

ProPublica, the liberal investigative journalism outlet, has published an excellent essay by Alec MacGillis about the costs of the remote learning phenomenon, largely from the perspective of one poor, black Baltimore middle schooler that MacGillis tutors.

In one remarkable passage, Randi Weingarten, the president of the largest teachers’ union, admits that the unions’ intransigence towards reopening was in large part driven by opposition to Trump:

On July 7, President Donald Trump held a series of events at the White House with Betsy DeVos, his secretary of education, to demand that schools open. “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools,” he said. “It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.”

The effect of Trump’s declaration was instantaneous. Teachers who had been responsive to the idea of returning to the classroom suddenly regarded the prospect much more warily. “Our teachers were ready to go back as long as it was safe,” Randi Weingarten, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me. “Then Trump and DeVos played their political bullshit.” Ryan Hooper, the former soldier, saw the effect on his colleagues. “It was really unhelpful,” he said.

In another passage, Weingarten cites some uncertain South Korean data to demonstrate the dangers of school openings, and is sanguine about the possibility that removing in-person schooling for over a year will loosen the commitment of the broader public to universal schooling:

Weingarten said that this came down to “trust.” “If parents and teachers aren’t confident that the safety measures are in place, then you’re not going to be able to stand it up in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. Contending that the virus was more harmful to kids than first realized, she cited the South Korean data — she was not aware of the revision, she said — and then another recent Times story on cases rising among kids, which had also been challenged for lacking context and scale. I noted the disagreements with her citations. She replied, “In the absence of trusted information, people have fear right now.”

I asked if she worried that there might be a backlash against public education and teachers’ unions if opening goes fairly well in private schools and public schools that have opened. “I’m hoping not,” she said. Ideally, successful opening in some places — notably the big test case of New York City — would give other districts confidence to follow suit. And, she said, she did not put much stock in predictions that the closures would cause a sustained unraveling of public education. “At the end of the day, kids need to be together in community,” she said.

In a separate interview, the head of Baltimore’s teachers’ union uses alleged previous racism to dismiss concerns about remote schooling now, and implies that any such concerns made in the name of Baltimore students are evidently in bad faith:

Brown chided those advocating reopening. As she saw it, they were professing a concern for disadvantaged urban children whom they had previously done little to support. “When it comes at a time that benefits other people, suddenly those kids become the apple of everyone’s eye,” she said. “I won’t allow people to use my schoolchildren as pawns.”

MacGillis’s approach throughout the essay, is to argue that shutting schools will deepen racial and economic inequality; he cites figures similar to those I estimated, suggesting “half of white students had the option of in-person instruction, while only about a quarter of Black and Hispanic students did.” In an earlier era, liberals might have argued against closing all the schools on the grounds that it was bad for the vast majority of kids- as MacGillis notes, children “had been hospitalized at a rate of 0.1 per 100,000, compared with 7.4 per 100,000 in adults between the ages of 50 and 64.” But now these arguments are generally made in the name of the most needy and deprived, like the Baltimore boy MacGillis uses as an example.

More broadly, the essay offers a taste of how the rhetoric of anti-racism can and will be routinely deployed in the interests of whatever institutions choose, with the alleged interests of vulnerable groups an easy and flexible tool to use for any occasion. As in much contemporary writing on racial inequality, bygone stories of the segregated South makes an appearance here, although here it is Prince Edward County, Virginia, that responded to Brown v. Board‘s orders to desegregate by shutting down their public school system altogether. The ideological order has now shifted- such that the goals of shutting down the schools are no longer the preservation of white supremacy, but “the significant numbers of Black and Brown students … and their families who unjustly face healthcare disparities that have made them more likely to be infected and killed by the coronavirus,” as the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland State Education Association argued in a letter to the governor calling for the schools to be closed. But as the black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. has remarked, “Antiracism now is doing the same kind of work for the ruling class that racism did a hundred years ago.” While the beneficiaries may change, at different times, for different alleged aims and with different core values, the wielders of power employ similar tools, to quite similar effect.

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