Op-Ed: When will school closures end? Not until we empower parents

(Justin Owen | The Center Square) – Many kids across the country have begun to return to school after the holiday break. But others have not.

Due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases arising out of the more contagious omicron variant, some 3,500 schools have thus far shut their doors to in-person instruction this spring, according to the Wall Street Journal. On Jan. 5, the Chicago teachers union effectively closed the city’s schools, a move that even the city’s liberal mayor, herself no stranger to heavy-handed pandemic policies, called an illegal strike.

Parents are fed up.

They were understanding when there was limited personal protective equipment for teachers, students and faculty early in the pandemic because we knew little about COVID-19’s spread. But going on two years later, their frustrations are mounting at school districts that have received billions of dollars in federal aid to make their schools a safe environment, yet are still closing their doors and ignoring the science. Couple that with the growing availability of vaccines and other treatment options for younger and younger populations, let alone the fact that omicron has proven to exhibit far less severe symptoms than previous strains, and parents are left scratching their heads.

What are parents to do? They’ve shown up to school board meetings and pleaded for reopening. They’ve demanded – sometimes successfully – that state legislatures limit school districts’ ability to close schools and impose mask mandates. Yet the education establishment and government officials repeatedly ignore parents’ concerns and sometimes even ignore the new state laws limiting their power. Parents easily can be ignored (although Terry McAuliffe might now regret so flippantly brushing them off) because in most cases, they have little say over their child’s education.

That can change. Robust parental choice will finally put parents in the driver’s seat. More than half the states have enacted some type of parental choice program, and even more joined in last year in what was dubbed “the year of school choice.” But many such programs are limited to lower-income families or those in certain geographic areas. West Virginia is the only state that effectively has universal educational choice.

That leaves millions of families without recourse. If school districts or the unions that often drive their decision-making refuse to listen, then parents should be able to walk away. All parents should have the ability to take the money we already spend on their child’s education and apply it to the school of their choice, be it their zoned public school, a charter school, a private school, an online school or a combination of all the above.

Parental choice in education has been a necessary option for a long time for families whose children are stuck in schools that aren’t serving their needs. Now, many parents are finding that their children can’t even be stuck in those schools because the schoolhouse door has been slammed in their faces. State legislators across the country need to not only listen to parents’ legitimate concerns, but truly empower them to finally do something about it.