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'Parents Need To Have Options': Education Policy Director Advocates For Flexible Learning Options

Matt Beienburg
Goldwater Institute
handout | agency | Handout photo from Jennifer Tiedemann of the Goldwater Institute.
Matt Beienburg

LAUREN GILGER: The pandemic has changed the face of education for the foreseeable future. And in doing so, it has drawn a line between those who believe schools should reopen to students and those who aren't ready for the consequences. Each side has its argument for not falling victim to the virus, essentially. Those who do not believe it's time to send students back at any age fear a loss of life. Those who argue in favor of returning fear a loss of time and educational opportunity. Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, wrote an  op-ed for The Washington Post and he said, quote, "The pandemic we realized is going to be endemic, an ongoing threat to manage, not a brief blip in history, cleanly wiped out by a miracle vaccine. The science will take time, but the world cannot." He argued in favor of bringing college students back to campus for in-person education. But my next guest argues there is no one size fits all answer to this. Matt Beienburg is the director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute where he directs education policy. And he told me there are still some important lessons we can take from higher education as we attempt to start this school year.

MATT BEIENBURG: One of the most important things that I think is a pretty profound insight from higher ed is families and students have the choice in terms of where they would like to go. And so if they feel like a school is either not taking safety precautions seriously or if they're not satisfied with the learning opportunities that that school is offering, that student, that family can opt for something different, right? They can take their tuition dollars elsewhere. And so colleges, in a sense, are very deeply accountable to the families and the parents there. And so I think that that's a pretty important lesson. And that applies also to this area of K-12. And that's sort of one of our positions that we've taken, which is that regardless of what decision a school is going to take in terms of reopening or the precautions that they're going to implement, at the end of the day, the focus needs to be on students and parents and making sure they have those options to pursue something that meets their needs — you know, again, recognizing that different communities, different families have different, some may have elevated risks,  others may have a particular preference for a different model. And so I think that there's an example here where you can see that there is a system in higher ed that allows for this, and to replicate that to the extent possible in K-12, I think would be something that would serve parents and students in the best way.

GILGER: So you'd say you want the option there that a student should be able to be in the classroom if they want to be?

BEIENBURG: Yeah, absolutely. And if a particular school or a provider doesn't feel that they're in a position to reopen, we are very much, you know, inclined to to not try and have a top-down approach. So if the schools in Wyoming are in a position to reopen and those in New York or Arizona at different points are, you know, in different cases, to recognize that. And I think that if a district isn't serving parents in a way that's helpful, those parents need to have options. And that's where I think folks in Arizona are so fortunate if a district is not reopening in a way that they like or maybe they are, they are reopening and parents aren't comfortable with that. They have options. They can go to a different district. They can go to a charter school. They can take advantage of programs like the Education Savings Account program (ESA). And so offering parents that decision means that we don't have to come in and try and declare on high, "This is the best approach."

GILGER: The other side of the coin here is educators, though, right? They maybe wouldn't have the same option if you're, if you need to have an option of in-person learning for some students who want it. Educators, though, then would have to be there, right? How do they, how does their sort of choice in this come into play in your mind?

BEIENBURG: Right. Same as before. You know, I think there are going to be communities, families, teachers who are going to be at an elevated risk. And I think that the providers should do all in their power to minimize that risk. We actually had just this week the chief medical officers at the U.K. come out and say that there's greater harm to students being at home than the socialization, the education that's taking place. And that the evidence suggests that the transmission from students to those teachers is low. Now, again, that's not to say that it's non-existent. And for teachers who are in positions where they're in a particular risk, you know, there are different approaches that they can take. You know, you can perhaps assign that teacher to be doing a distance learning type of, of opportunity rather than an in-person, right? I mean, districts already now have staffing regimes where they may move a teacher to a different school based on the need. And I, you know, I would say in the same way that for districts to take into account those needs of the teachers while also recognizing that the priority is ultimately for students and offering those options, that's the best way to go. And if, again, the parents aren't satisfied with what the district is doing, that family and that student has to be given an opportunity to go someplace else.

GILGER: I wonder about that, though, because we've talked to some of the superintendents of some of these districts as this has played out here in the last several weeks in Arizona, about what the districts are going to do with these health recommendations and their recommendations from the State Department of Health, and they feel very much like this shouldn't be their responsibility, like there should be some sort of top down mandate so that they don't have to be the ones to make this call. What's your response to that?

BEIENBURG: Sure. Well, a top down mandate, you know, if you look at the options, you know, again, Americans are split on this, right? So a lot of people are pushing very hard to reopen. A lot of people are pushing very hard not to. And so a top down mandate means that half the country is unhappy, right? That's sort of the problem with our political climate in general, is we all think, "Well, if we can get our side in power, we can get our policies and everything will be better." Not recognizing that now you have basically broken, you know, an opportunity for the other half. And so it may be convenient and it may feel like then they don't have to make these decisions, but ultimately, those hard decisions have to be made by somebody, and it's far better for that to be made closer to the ground, you know, within communities than for a politician, you know, on either side of the country, especially. And so I think that, yes, it's very difficult. I'm very sympathetic to them. But at the end of the day, that decision has to be made. And ultimately, the parents and the students are the ones that we have to try and prioritize here while offering options to keep teachers and staff also safe to the extent possible.

GILGER: One of the things that's come up in this debate is the idea of equity, right? Of whether or not all students and all families, all parents, depending on their situation, financial situation, their work situations, really have a choice in a lot of ways. Like some parents can't keep their kids at home to do distance learning at home right now whether or not they would like to. Do you think that, that if this is sort of left to the local level and things are different here and there, that some people are going to get left behind?

BEIENBURG: Sure. And we saw early on in the shutdowns, kids who are most disadvantaged tended to suffer from those shutdowns in ways that other students didn't necessarily do. Whether it's a lack of Internet access, a parent support structure, whatever it may be. And so making sure that these families do have options, right? And one of those might be things like the ESA program. So we've heard a lot about pandemic pods and micro schools and families who are coming together to themselves do some sort of home schooling or to get tutors to work with a group of kids where it's a small group. You know, many of these require financial resources. And so folks have said, "Well, this is an open to our more disadvantaged communities." Well, in places like Arizona, we're fortunate because we have things like the ESA program where a student coming from, you know, some of these lower income areas, some of the low performing ones — the Roosevelt district, for example — all the kids there will qualify essentially for the ESA program. That'll give $6,000 per student that they can put together, help pay for tutoring, even if the family doesn't have those resources.

GILGER: All right. That is Matt Beienburg, director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute here in the Valley. Matt, thank you so much for joining us to talk this through.

BEIENBURG: Thanks so much for the time. Appreciate it.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.