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Kelly Evans: School's out for ever

CNBC's Kelly Evans

My first reaction this summer in realizing that the fight over reopening schools was largely pitting teachers--who were anti-reopening--versus parents (who were mostly pro-) was one of confusion.  

Shouldn't it be exactly the other way around? I had assumed that the parents would be the ones against sending their kids back into an unsafe situation--as some indeed are--while the teachers would be doing everything possible to coax them to return. Hence my puzzled feeling throughout this interview a few weeks back with the head of the Essex County, N.J., teachers' union. 

Thinking it over the past few weeks while watching my neighbors try their best to sort out their plans for their kids this fall has crystallized the paradox in my mind: I don't think public school teachers realized just how much they have to lose.  

Interest in homeschooling; in "learning pods" comprised of small family groups; even in parochial schools has absolutely skyrocketed, especially in areas where public schools aren't fully reopening this fall. One family I know is sending their kids to the local Catholic school this year, simply because they'll be open. (And they got in; many are stuck on the wait list.) Another is opting for a nearby private school for their youngest even though they've been deeply involved for years with the local public school's parent-teacher association.  

As families opt out, it's no wonder that some places--like Montgomery County, Md., whose public schools will be online-only this fall--have also tried to ban private schools from reopening. But even places that succeed in doing so can't stop parents from withdrawing their kids to do homeschooling or learning pods instead. My guess is that public school teachers and workers are suddenly realizing they've been advocating their own irrelevance. They are stuck in an awful situation, between that and risking their health; but that's something that essential workers across the country have been dealing with for months. Public schools now risk being classified altogether as non-essential.  

There will be dramatic consequences from this pandemic on the vitality of public schools--which I attended proudly from "K through 12"--from here on out. If I were the teachers' unions I'd be making the full-throated case for why the fracturing of public school will terribly worsen inequality in this country, and that "opting out" is unpatriotic. (Even though school choice is also the only way for low-income kids to escape failing public schools.) I'd be doing everything possible to get the schools open as safely as possible and urge parents not to prematurely withdraw. 

But the genie is out of the bottle now. In the same way that "work from home" has opened new possibilities for how and where people do their jobs now, families are realizing they can also basically do "school from anywhere." If you're forced to learn remotely, why go with your local school's online offerings when you can have your pick of curricula from the internet, and do it from anywhere? The same people who would have wrinkled their nose at the term "homeschooling" a year ago are now dazzled by the sophistication of the offerings.  

It doesn't even have to be that the number of kids who permanently opt out of public schools skyrockets. It may show simply modest growth. But the politics has shifted now that the public is more informed about these alternatives to public schools. Take, for instance, Senator Rand Paul's "SCHOOL Act," which would give parents control over the federal education dollars currently sent to public school districts where they live.  

In terms of dollars, it wouldn't be a huge amount; federal spending is about 8.5% of K-12 funding in the U.S., according to the Heritage Foundation. For low-income families, that roughly runs around $1,500 per child annually. But then you get people thinking about why other government spending shouldn't also "go with" their kid to pay for their education however it happens, as opposed to being sent to the local public school. In fact, roughly half of U.S. states offer "school choice" programs so that your state education dollars follow you that way; this could be worth, say, $6,000 a year in a state like Arizona, per Heritage.  

Now, you still have to pay your local property taxes no matter if you send your kid to public school or not. But the way of "opting out" from that share, which is the lion's share of taxes spent on education, is pretty obvious--if you're not sending your kids to public school, you move to a low-tax district without one.  

You can see the major long-term implications of what's happening here. Everything from local property values to the attractiveness of public school municipal bonds to the tax revenue that pays for all other local services is potentially undermined by this Great Awakening to school choice.  

Who will be most affected? It's hard to say. Perhaps, as we're seeing with the redistributed workforce, for every place that loses out, one will benefit, much like the "Zoom towns" we're seeing today. But I do wonder if public school funding writ large is at some kind of apex now, and will start to erode as taxpayers demand more control over where their school funds go. 

Just one of the many unforeseen consequences of Covid-19.  

See you at 1 p.m! 


Twitter: @KellyCNBC

Instagram: @realkellyevans