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Over the past year, in thousands of stories, we have been given a front-row seat to the tragicomic ways school districts make decisions. And while each of the stories has had its own distinct plot, most had one thing in common: The transformation of teachers from heroes into villains.
This happened despite or perhaps because of the fact that so few teachers have a formal voice in the way we govern our schools. To better understand why and avoid a string of unwanted sequels, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on our Byzantine school governance systems and ask if we can do better.
There is no policy area in our governance “more complex than elementary and secondary education,” education professors and researchers Paul Manna and Patrick McGuinn wrote in their in their 2013 book. That’s because actors at all levels in the U.S. federal system can claim both right and duty to govern public schools.
Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted in 2002, the federal government has played an outsized role in standardization. Meanwhile, under-resourced state governments have scrambled to meet constitutional duties to enact a “basic,” “uniform” and “adequate” system of public education.
Each of the nation’s nearly 14,000 districts oversees daily school routines, managed by a superintendent who is hired, and may be fired, by a democratically elected school board. Add to this cast local, national and international business leaders invested in workforce development and parents pushing for access, equity and excellence.
Lastly, consider the teachers who deliver instruction, nurture creativity and triage trauma.
Most of the media coverage of protracted delays in returning to in-person education has unsurprisingly failed to capture these complexities of school governance. Skipping over the fact that policymakers and managers publish the plans and call the shots, many people, frustrated by slow reopenings, focused on teachers, and this inspired an anti-teacher backlash.
Over the past year, encouraged by my work to add nuance to the popular understanding of teachers unions and by my own experience as a parent of elementary-aged public school kids, I embarked on an effort to interview union leaders from 100+ districts, urban, rural and suburban, in 12-states. My study was designed to document teacher involvement in pandemic decision-making; the results suggest that blaming teachers for delays in school reopenings misses the story.
And that could have real consequences for our already fragile public education system.
Because it wasn’t just teachers who wanted to delay in-person learning. Superintendents, school boards, parents, custodial staff, nutrition staff and transportation staff also publicly voiced concerns.
To people running the day-to-day operation of public school systems across the country, delaying reopening an additional week or month meant time to recruit emergency personnel, restructure curricula, rearrange or substitute furniture, stockpile safety supplies, develop clear isolation and contact tracing systems and, in some cases, secure vaccinations for school personnel.
If a documentary is made about the pandemic’s impact on public education, we’ll see that teachers were not villains.
We can’t forget that federal and state governments did none of these things for our schools. School districts were making these decisions locally. And although strong unions often played a role in re-opening timelines, that was not always the case.
Across the country, teachers were terrified to return to their classrooms without fully fleshed-out plans. Educators in southern urban districts with mostly Black and brown students organized car rallies and letter-writing campaigns to encourage school board members to consult with public health authorities before reopening.
Most of these teachers lacked a formal right to collective bargaining; they couldn’t threaten to go out on strike. But they found a way to voice concerns and delay reopenings. As a result, they might be deemed just as powerful as the more militant unions.
Teachers in nonunionized charter schools also prevented pre-vaccine school in-person reopenings by quitting or threatening to do so when they knew no one was waiting to take their place.
Teachers across the country asked board members to be careful in their decision-making, but so did parents and other community members. In some cases, school boards determined reopening dates and approved safety protocols. In many other cases, school boards granted superintendents emergency executive powers. In those cases, a sole, unelected actor decided whether and how much to involve school personnel and the community in pandemic management.
Some superintendents with new and broad decision-making authority responded to parents’ concerns and to teachers’ concerns. Sometimes these concerns aligned, other times they did not.
Teachers rarely (if ever) got exactly what they wanted. Yet, they showed up this year when, where and how they could. If a documentary is made about the pandemic’s impact on public education, we’ll see that teachers were not villains.
If we want strong public schools, we must makemore space at our decision-making tables — formalizing and encouraging regular communication between school leaders and teachers through unions and by other intentional means.
The pandemic exposed our school governance systems’ shortcomings, and if there was a surprise, it’s how so few districts treat teachers like the vital partners they are. For the future of public education in this country, that must change.
Lesley Lavery is the author of “A Collective Pursuit: Teachers’ Unions and Education Reform” and an associate professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This story about teachers and school governance was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.