Democrats are on their heels when it comes to education. There is an emerging narrative that school reopening issues during the COVID-19 pandemic hurt Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in his reelection bid and may do further damage to Democrats down the road. The argument goes that blue states—including Virginia—were too cautious in keeping schools closed for in-person learning over the course of the 2020-21 school year, and that this has angered parents who had to deal with the fallout from those closures.
There is no question that school closures during the pandemic were incredibly disruptive to families. The science also suggests that in-person schooling, especially with masking policies that are widely supported, has not had much of an effect on COVID transmission. And of course the number of children who have been hospitalized or died of COVID-19, while not zero, is extremely low by any reasonable standard (lower than a typical annual flu, for instance). So I agree with proponents who say that schools in blue states and urban areas closed down for too long and should basically be open now with close to no exceptions.
But the reality is that this narrative falls apart because parents are simply not dissatisfied with the performance of educational institutions. If anything, parents are more satisfied than I think they should be given what happened last year. Survey after survey finds strong parent support for how schools handled COVID-19 and are handling the ongoing recovery. The most recent nationally-representative data finds that about 80 to 90% of parents are satisfied with how schools are handling education issues during the reopening. Parents are satisfied with how schools are making up for students’ learning loss (82% satisfied), how they are meeting children’s mental health (85%) and social needs (87%), and how they are ensuring their children are on track to graduate (89%).
What’s interesting about parent satisfaction with schools is that, in contrast to almost everything else these days, there are close to zero demographic differences in these attitudes. Republicans can try to make school closures a partisan issue, but this is unlikely to be successful when almost everyone of all races, income levels, and party affiliations simply doesn’t believe it to be true.
Whether it is an accurate characterization or not, Democrats should be on the offense about the performance of educational systems during COVID. Parents think schools did mostly a good job, and they certainly think that things now—when everyone is back for in-person learning—are going well.
There are a few important risks to be aware of, though. The clearest risk is against future school closures. Study after study finds that the quality of online or hybrid learning was far lower than the quality of in-person learning, and that these options were therefore considerably less popular among parents. So protracted or highly inconvenient school closures moving forward could indeed drive public opinion on school performance south. There is no appetite for further school closures, and there is widespread support for reasonable policies to keep in-school COVID risks small.
Another risk is that leaders, both in the Democratic party but also in local schools and districts, get complacent in the face of these results. There is not likely to be much pressure for schools and districts to take aggressive measures to address COVID-related educational effects, but these effects are very real. Recent assessment data shows the bottom falling out of the student achievement distribution, with students falling far behind in elementary reading and mathematics. These are real problems that need real solutions, and pretending things are hunky dory because parents are satisfied is a road to educational ruin.
A third risk is that there is some real dissatisfaction with regard to other educational issues like the debate over how to handle issues of race in public schools and whether and how parents should be involved in school policy decisions around curriculum and other issues. These are probably places where Democrats are more vulnerable, so they shouldn’t assume that parents are supportive of the whole progressive education agenda just because they aren’t very upset about last year’s school closures.
So who are parents mad at, if not the Democrats or school leaders? I think the short answer is probably that parents aren’t a bloc that directs their anger consistently in one direction or another. Rather, I think parents—like many of us—mostly just want to move on and put the last 18 months behind them. The key thing is that their kids are back in school with their friends and teachers, learning reading and math and staying both safe and out of parents’ hair. State and district leaders—whether Democrat or Republican—should do everything they can to keep kids in school throughout this school year and beyond so that parents stay as satisfied as they are.