The school year is about to begin. School districts have announced their plans for how they will serve their students, and the protests have begun.

Columbia parents held a “Rally for Choice Learning” outside the Columbia Public Schools administration building. These parents want in-person learning. However, the “Not Until It’s Safe” parent group wants the opposite — until there have been 14 consecutive days with no new cases reported.

In Springfield, parents protested against the hybrid plan that would only have their children attend school for two days per week. The Fort Zumwalt School District is pressing forward with five-day in-person learning, to which 20% of parents have already said “no, thank you” and signed up for the virtual option.

Meanwhile wealthy districts, such as Ladue, and low-income districts, such as St. Louis Public Schools, have decided to stay all virtual for the first nine weeks. Working parents in these districts have been given no in-person option and will have to find child care. Many who thought that buying an expensive home would guarantee a good education for their children are irate. And the biggest source of pain for parents is that the plans keep changing. Public schooling is currently a mess.

It’s not surprising that unhappy parents everywhere are pulling their children out of public schools. In Nebraska, requests to homeschool are up 21%. In Wisconsin, requests have doubled. Parents across the country are getting together with friends and neighbors and creating micro-schools. Parent unions are forming, and some are calling for a “breakup” with traditional education.

What should Missouri be doing during this upheaval? First, we need leadership. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has only released health guidelines for reopening and created a task force to study lack of broadband access in rural areas. Should we expect that all 520 school districts simply figure out a great plan on their own? By comparison, many states, such as Nebraska, Texas and Florida, have created websites with comprehensive planning guides and toolkits.

Second, we should be making several easily accessed choices available to parents. At least one district, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, is allowing parents who want a virtual education for their children to enroll them with one of the state-approved virtual providers under the Missouri Course Access Program . Other districts should do the same. This is not a year for inventing things from scratch.

Parents should also be able to easily choose in-person enrollment at a private school. There are a number of apps, such as ClassWallet, that the state could use to provide parents with funds to purchase tuition. This is not the year to settle the public-versus-private debate. This is a year to get kids back to learning.

Third, accountability and transparency must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. For the past six months, public school districts — and their budgets — have operated in a consequence-free environment regardless of how they responded to the pandemic. But children who lose months of education due to their districts’ inaction won’t be so lucky, and achievement gaps will only widen until each student has access to a learning environment — in-person or online — where they can thrive.

Parents were put in the driver’s seat last spring whether they liked it or not. Now, they’re being asked to give the wheel back to public school districts that don’t even seem to know how to start the car. It’s not surprising that they’re fed up.

Susan Pendergrass is the director of research and education policy at the Show-Me Institute.


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