Welcome to my annual tradition of reflection and prediction. When I read over my previous posts for each year, it strikes me just how wild this set of 365 days has been.
We all know 2020 was a dumpster fire of year, and not just in the world of education. None of could have known the challenges this year would bring, but I started the year off with much optomisim.
At the beginning of the year I was working diligently with hundreds of other volunteers in Idaho collecting signatures for the Invest in Idaho ballot initiative. That initiative, if passed, would have significantly increased funding to Idaho’s public schools, and we were well on track to meet the signature threshold to get it on the ballot.
I traveled on Reclaim Idaho’s duck-taped green bus across the state, learned acting is not the job for me while being filmed for a professional video about the initiative, and quickly qualified the district I live in (District 10) for the initiative by the beginning of March.
And then the pandemic. The day before spring break my classroom was nearly empty, but not because our school was closed. Like the rest of America, families in my community were scared for what would come next.
For me, that meant that school did not resume in-person instruction after spring break. Like many teachers across the country and world, we finished the 2019-2020 academic year with distance learning. Overnight, like many educators, I was expected to become an expert virtual teacher.
And parents were also given the impossible expectation of being an at-home educator. The outcomes were entirely predictable. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Parents, teachers, and administration all went above and beyond to continue providing an education during the initial outbreak.
I never would have imagined that I would be party to a suit that made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court asking that Idaho would allow us to continue gathering signatures for the ballot initiative online since going door-to-door during a pandemic is the square root of stupid. While the 9th circuit initially agreed to allow us to proceed, SCOTUS effectively killed the initiative by issuing a stay order. It effectively killed the ballot initiative.
And while that was the first casualty of COVID for me personally, it is pretty small potatoes in comparison to what was to come. Knock on wood I have remained healthy to date, but so many of my friends and family have contracted the disease. Obviously, I am not alone in this.
Governor Little’s response the near immediate recession caused by a state-at-home order was to cut education funding by almost a hundred million dollars at precisely the time schools needed more resources than ever to safely open schools in the fall.
The State Board of Education completely passed the buck on school repening plans by leaving it entirely up to each individual district and charter school to develop their own plans. The result was business in usual for some communities, hybrid instruction for others, and completely online for others. There was no coordinated strategy.
Ditto a lack of statewide strategy to combat the pandemic. Each individual health district put into place wildly different plans. Some members of the health district board’s questioned COVID’s very existence. The results, there too, were entirely predictable.
During summer when our leaders were rolling out a hodgepodge of strategies, I started a Podcast called Academics in a Pandemic to explore how the pandemic impacted every part of the education community including students, parents, teachers, and professors. It is worth a listen.
As cases surged, so did emotions. Protestors gathered not just at school board meetings & regional health board meetings, but in front of board members’ private residences. Board members resigned as threats against their safety were communicated.
My district has stayed open for in-person instruction in a hybrid model. The school year has been…where to start?
On one hand, it has been so rewarding to not have 40 students in the classroom. In case there was ever any doubt, I will tell you class sizes matter. It is amazing to have the ability to actually answer every student’s questions, have time to check on students’ work in real-time, and form solid relationships with each individual student. Class sizes matter.
On the other hand, the distance-learning component has been haphazard. I have so much admiration for parents and relatives doing their absolute best to transition to their homes into classrooms. But it clearly is not an equal substitute.
Lack of consistent internet access, babysitting siblings, mental health issues from isolation, food insecurity, and…so much more. For some students, it just is not an effective model of instruction. And it is not the student or their family’s fault. COVID simply highlighted inequities that already existed, not caused them.
It’s not COVID’s fault that in the year 2020 many of Idaho’s families do not have access to any internet at all, let alone high-speed broadband.
It’s not COVID’s fault that many families rely on schools’ free and reduced lunch programs for their children’s nutrition.
It’s not COVID’s fault that many schools cannot afford to buy a textbook for every student that they can take home since they are not physically in school.
And so much more. The problems were already there. The question is, what will we do about these structural inequalities now that they have been so clearly exposed.
Which leads me to the prediction portion of this post.
Our state government currently has 500 million dollars in the rainy day fund. Idaho is also projected to have a half a billion dollar surplus. For being in a recession, our state is rolling in Benjamins.
I am cynical the legislature will substantially invest in public schools despite currently having the funds to do so. Governor Little was elected as an “education governor,” but I just don’t see the will in the Republican dominated legislature to inject significant more resources into schools.
I do, however, see much will with the Republican legislature to reduce taxes. Abolishing the sales tax on groceries would be a great way to eliminate a regressive tax that disproportionately impact low income families. If there was ever a time where our state would be in a position to eliminate that tax, now is the time.
I don’t see it happening. I do see Idaho’s top income tier being reduced for the state’s highest earners. I do see conversations on reducing taxes that will benefit the largest corporations in the state. I do see serious conversations related to property tax for homeowners.
I see renewed conversations of voucher programs for families to choose their own schools. And I can totally understand why: many families are incredibly frustrated with schools this year. Whatever model of instruction a school chose, there were bound to be families upset with their districts or charters. It will lead to a renewed interest in amending the state’s constitution which includes the so-called “Blaine Amendment) which prohibits sending money from the State’s treasury to religious institutions, or in this case private religious schools.
I see a continued push in legislation on social issues in schools that sucked all the oxygen from the capital last session on LGTQ issues in schools, especially sports.
Idaho will need to determine if it wants to continue sticking with an Average Daily Attendance (ADA) model for school funding after this requirement was waived for this year. As I have written before, moving to an enrollment based model invites opportunities for fraud, but as this year has shown it also has the advantage of being much more flexible.
I wish that there would be substantial discussion and legislation modernizing Idaho’s health districts. Splitting the Treasure Valley into two separate districts, for instance, clearly had profound impacts as folks who live and commute in both of those districts were not participating in a unified strategy. In fact, quite the opposite.
I see a massive drop in college and university enrollment for the next academic year. Many high school seniors, with schools all but shut down, established full time jobs. Some by necessity due to layoffs and hour cuts for their parents. For many of these young people, it will be difficult to persuade them to leave these jobs and return to full time studies. I hope I’m wrong.
I see Idaho lagging in vaccinations. While I am hopeful we can quickly protect our community and moving into a post-COVID world, many citizens in our state have amply demonstrated their hostility to science and medicine. I hope I’m wrong.
Finally, I do see a new year. Think about that for a second. A brand new year where anything is possible. 2020 has set a pretty low bar for what measures as success.
But I’ll take wins wherever I can find them. Have a happy and safe new year!