Public education and living our lives – important enough to take a risk on

In the post-Traci Davis era, it is nice to see positive headlines coming out of the Washoe County School District. Well, most people consider it a positive — elementary school kids are going back to school full time, five days a week. Middle and high schools will be on more of a hybrid model, although I hope they get back full time as soon as possible. Teenagers are getting together anyway – they might as well be learning something while they do it.

As the plans for the new school year finalize, here and around the country, cue a paranoid group of teachers who increasingly are resisting going back to work, even though Science says kids need to go back for their health and welfare. The NEA objects categorically, and I’m seeing teachers complain on social media that they aren’t responsible for “babysitting” kids “just” to reopen the economy. It’s just not safe, you see. And in the meantime, they’re asking not just to be exempted from budget cuts, but to get more money at a time when private sector taxpayers are least able to afford it, if they’re lucky enough to be working at all.

I love teachers, but teacher organizations (like many organized groups of public employees) can be remarkably oblivious. What other worker can be forced to slash his or her productivity as a public health measure, and still gets to demand a full paycheck? The COVID jobless can’t even get unemployment from the state, or count on more than a day’s notice of their joblessness from a governor acting increasingly fecklessly, arbitrarily, and capriciously (and who has his Legislature in session and still inexplicably insists on making laws on a whim by fiat instead of by, you know, legitimately passing laws).

The data shows that online learning in the spring was better than nothing, but still was a failure. I think my kids’ school did a remarkable job under the circumstances (in no small part because it’s a charter school, and wasn’t bogged down in the one-size-must-fit-all bureaucratic rules which govern large school districts), but compared to The Beforetimes it was a pale shadow of what public education can and should be. What that means is that the product Nevadans were getting for our money was deficient, and the longer our kids wait to go back to school, the further behind they’ll fall.

Are we now so myopically risk-averse that we will all simply accept this guaranteed long-term damage to our children (as opposed to the vanishingly small risk they will die or even get sick from the disease)?

If schools shut back down, or even re-open with arbitrary and logically inconsistent regulations about masks, extra-curricular activities, and interaction with other kids, many parents won’t be willing to put up with it. A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll showed 60 percent of parents considering homeschooling, with 30 percent of those “strongly” contemplating it. Kindergarten registration in Washoe County is down 50 percent. These kids won’t, of course, be simply taught by their parents – without a doubt parents will set up homeschooling co-ops, and recruit the braver teachers away to help. Whatever regulations politicians try to impose will be thwarted one way or another as education becomes decentralized and privatized – one can imagine neighborhood speakeasy schools all over the state, with less economically advantaged kids (as usual) getting the shortest end of the stick.

Parents will – quite reasonably – become increasingly skeptical of public education budgets that provide increasingly less return on investment either for them personally or for the state in general. Many of those parents will work in jobs where if they don’t produce – or don’t work at all – they don’t get paid, and will not be sympathetic to other people who think they’re exempt from this fundamental concept.

And if distance learning does catch on, expect a lot fewer teachers to be employed in the long term. Most of the on-line lessons consist of pre-recorded lectures, which can be used over and over for years. With fewer man hours needed to present new material, fewer full-time jobs are needed for one-on-one instruction, grading papers, or the other things good teachers do. I’m not advocating for any of this, but the budget math will be inexorable if teachers refuse to go back to the physical classroom, and parents respond predictably.

In other words, if teachers care about the future of their professions and the preservation of the large, unionized public school model, they’d do well do figure out how – not if – to get back to some normalcy in the fall.

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COVID is not going away. Not anytime soon. When we flattened the curve last spring, we all knew that the purpose was not to eliminate COVID-19, but to actually make the pandemic last longer, to keep hospitalizations spread out and therefore not overwhelming (remember that chart that’s been all but memory-holed?). Wearing masks to slow transmission will, logically, make it last even longer, and as we ease off on restrictions, we will logically see an increase in transmission again until some critical mass of people has had the disease. 

(This, frankly, is my frustration with the mask mandates – I was in the military, and can put up with all manner of deprivation and discomfort if it actually serves a purpose. I get that a mask will help impede transmission, even if it won’t eliminate community spread. But I still have not seen a single argument even attempting to explain how mask wearing will end the epidemic itself sooner rather than dragging it out longer, given the already widespread prevalence of the virus in the community, even though that is the constant mantra.)  

If we panic and knee-jerk every time numbers tick up, which is clearly now Gov. Sisolak’s “strategy,” this terrible phantom half-a-life we are all existing in will continue for years, along with all the cumulative destruction to our civil liberties, our economy, and our humanity that has and will continues to come with it.  

And back to education and the self-preservation of teachers, the more often those knee-jerk reactions shut down tax-paying businesses, the less money there will be for teachers. You think education funding is bad now, wait until unemployment payments keep hemorrhaging from the state budget, and everyone who can be taxed, has been taxed. 

And more than that, there are bigger issues at stake. In my profession, if I don’t work, and if the government buildings themselves I practice in don’t function, not only do I not get paid, but innocent people sit in cages indefinitely without their day in court. Our nation’s founding generation (the people it’s now so in vague to sneer at by the inadequately educated and easily manipulated) literally took up arms (in the middle of their own pandemic, no less) and risked death on the battlefield or at the gallows because the British government was, among other things, denying trials by jury. I volunteered to serve in uniform to preserve those rights, and many of my fellow vets gave their lives for those rights. The very least any of us can do is walk into a courtroom, or answer a jury summons. 

Not every career gets TV shows made about it as frequently as mine. But whatever profession or job any of us find ourselves in, all of us contribute to civic life, and help pay for the institutions prior generations knew were worth fighting for. You can’t just shut down certain parts of our lives and not have millions of unexpected and mostly negative consequences. It’s why the distinctions between “essential” and “non-essential” workers has always been absurd, economically illiterate, and damaging for us all the longer we keep it up.

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When I was in Navy ROTC in college, one of the things they did to prepare us for active duty life was to bore us to death with all the required GMT, aka “General Military Training.”  A lot of it was the type of HR stuff you have at any job – don’t fraternize, don’t sexually harass anyone, don’t do drugs, that sort of thing. And of course there was the inevitable general safety training.

On one of those days, the Marine captain who taught at the unit, an AH-1W Super Cobra pilot and veteran of Desert Storm, piped up at the very end of the boring lecture. “So – what’s the number one priority?” he drawled in his Texan accent (think Hank Hill, half an octave higher). We all droned, “Safety first, sir!”  “WRONG!” he shouted. And then he went on to remind us that we were, in fact, in the military, and that if safety was the number one priority, no ship would ever go to sea, no aircraft would ever take off, no one would ever load a gun, and none of us would ever leave our homes to drive to work. He was right about military life, and about life in general. What would otherwise have been a most forgettable class turned out to be profoundly impactful.

Those of us who understand that universal public education is crucial to the long-term health of any great nation will be willing to take reasonable risks to ensure we keep our obligations to our youngest citizens. And truly – what public education advocate among us would trade staying alive in an isolated bubble at the price of depriving every child in America – or even just in Nevada – an adequate education?

We cannot simply hide away until all danger has passed. For one thing, it never will (or if it does, some new danger will be around the corner). For another, living life – in the classroom and beyond – is worth a little more courage and grit than we’ve been showing of late. We owe it to our kids and to ourselves to get back out there and face the world again.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.