Parents Are Worried About Schools. Are the Candidates?

The pandemic has made education a top issue for many voters. But you wouldn’t know that from the candidates’ stump speeches.


By Abby Goodnough

Communities large and small are battling over whether and how to reopen schools closed since March. Superintendents are warning of drastic budget cuts on the horizon, teachers’ unions are calling for standardized tests to be canceled for a second straight year and millions of children are learning remotely, with little evaluation of the impact on their academic growth.

Yet for months now, the extraordinary challenges of schooling during the coronavirus pandemic have not been a dominant campaign theme for either President Trump or his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

That is partly because states and local districts have a larger role than the federal government in funding and running schools. But with so many families deeply affected by the pandemic’s upending of school routines and potentially lasting impact on childhood learning, the lack of thoughtful focus on the issue has frustrated parents and educators alike.

“It should really be a pivotal topic,” said Kisha Hale, principal of the upper grades at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington, which has been providing virtual instruction to its largely low-income students since March. “With Covid-19, there are so many other things taking the focus away from education. But if our future doctors, teachers and lawyers can’t be properly prepared during this time and we’re not talking about it, what is it that we are saying really matters?”

Several recent polls have suggested the issue is a leading concern for many voters. A Politico and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey released last month found that schools and education was the second most important issue for likely voters, after the economy and jobs. And a poll conducted this month in Michigan for The Detroit Free Press found that reopening schools and the economy was the top issue concerning voters, followed by the public health crisis posed by the coronavirus.

In his rallies, Mr. Trump reliably mentions that he will fight for school choice and protect charter schools, which is both a pitch to urban Black and Hispanic voters, many of whom split with the Democratic Party on those issues, and a rallying cry for conservatives. And he has consistently called for schools to reopen, threatening at one point to withhold federal funds from those that resisted.

But Mr. Trump has said little to nothing about the role of federal funding in helping districts reopen safely. And instead of calling for clear, prescriptive recommendations on reopening, he has pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to emphasize the importance of reopening schools, despite the concerns of many C.D.C. scientists that the White House has minimized the risks.

Mr. Biden frequently touts proposals to triple federal spending on schools that serve large numbers of poor students and to provide free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds, while reproaching Mr. Trump for not reaching a deal with Congress to provide more emergency school funding. The CARES Act provided an initial $13 billion in April, but groups representing educators have asked for many times that amount.

“President Trump still doesn’t have any real plan for how to open our schools safely, no real plan for how to help parents feel secure for their children,” Mr. Biden said last month about reopening schools.

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