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Building Education Back Better at the Intersection of Parents and Policy

Figuring out what it really means to “build back better” after COVID is a key task of this in-between time, when hope grows but infections and economic woes persist. At this point, little is clear except two facts: there’s lots of federal funding—$81 billion in the American Rescue Plan alone—and the decisions about school next year aren’t just being made in the halls of the Department of Education or the Zooms of local school boards; they are happening around kitchen tables in houses and apartments across the country.

This year has exposed, perhaps more vividly than any other, the fact that schools are places where the intimate dilemmas of parenting and large-scale policy decisions intersect. Several stories in the last month have illustrated it vividly, and as we figure out what better we want for next year—at our own kitchen tables and in larger contexts—it seems logical to keep that intersection in mind.

Parents and Kindergarten teacher Julissa Matias-Kelly meet at St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem.

The New York Times, for example, profiled New Jersey parents who have made big shifts to enable their children to attend school in person in the face of district closures: paying to enroll them in Catholic or private schools, or even, in one family’s case, selling their house and moving to a district where in-person schooling was happening.

The parents profiled in the New York Times article are primarily in affluent towns—places like Maplewood, where median household income is $139,000—more than double the national $69,000. These families’ affluence has long put them in a position to have government—in this case, local government schools—work for them. When it suddenly stopped doing that this year, more families at higher income levels experienced the kinds of frustrations with government programs that lower-income families have long known—not exactly the kind of common ground we aspire to, but perhaps an empathy-building experience that can help build common cause now.

Far from buying a new house in an affluent New Jersey suburb, another family slept in a parked car in D.C. for part of this year. This spring, the Washington Post profiled them among those experiencing homelessness in the city. The article explains that a working mother and her daughter lived temporarily in their car this year to avoid one consequence of moving to where they could find affordable housing in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs: that move would make the daughter ineligible for the publicly funded voucher program that enabled her to attend the school of her choice, a Catholic high school in D.C.. While a mom sleeping in her car may not seem to have much in common with one buying a new house or another dashing off a six-figure tuition check, they are all parents who share a “whatever it takes” approach to their kids’ education.

Currently, most states’ policies do not recognize that parents across income levels share that “whatever it takes” approach to education; most states in effect limit families’ range of educational choices based on income. To give all families the same choices, including faith based ones, isn’t just a matter of passing voucher or tuition tax credit programs; it compels a deeper change: “to move from our devotion to independence, through an understanding of interdependence, to a commitment to…those social and economic structures that permit everyone to share in a community.” There’s a word for that in Catholic thinking: solidarity.

The American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the child tax credit is another step in the direction of solidarity. It recognizes implicitly that all parents are decision makers, and all of us have a stake in the decisions they are empowered to make. As America Magazine notes, “this is a dramatic change in how the United States treats families”—and, we hope, a promising one.

These tax credits—and school choice—require trust in parents, and in a wide range of schools. Trust is necessary for solidarity but in short supply in many quarters of the U.S.. One of those New Jersey moms profiled in the New York Times, for example, had grown so frustrated at a year of remote learning that she enrolled her daughter in a $40,000-per-year private school—a particularly dramatic move given that, as she says, “‘We moved here to participate in the public school system.’” Author Tracey Tully goes on to explain that the mother’s “trust in the district had eroded.”

That mom sounds strangely like she’s beginning to discover what yet another group of parents recently profiled in Mother Jones has long felt. In examining the phenomenon of Black families who are not returning to public schools even when they reopen, Mother Jones quotes one Manhattan mom: “‘If they didn’t keep my children safe before COVID, why would I think that they would now?’”

So “better” will also look like deliberate effort to build trust—for all families. As Catholic schools, we have long been keenly aware that we depend on parents’ trust—and in all humility, we haven’t always nailed it. This September, as we invited teachers and families back to in-person schooling, Partnership Schools reflected deeply on the structures needed to cultivate the trust crucial for our plans. And we know we cannot take that trust for granted. At least in New York, if parents lose their trust in city schools and leave, those schools get $130 million in cut funding restored. If parents lose their trust in Catholic schools—or lose their ability to pay for them—we close. Trust isn’t a nice perk for our schools; it is an existential imperative.

Solidarity became popularized by St. John Paul II during the Polish struggle against Soviet control. It implies that advancement for a society relies on how we connect within that society. Said differently, solidarity means that going after equity works best when it’s not a program for someone else’s kids, but rather an effort in which we each have a connection and a stake.

To act in solidarity is to step out of zero-sum political games, with winners and losers who struggle against each other. Solidarity “implies a struggle with others, with injustice (rather than other people) as the enemy.” As we figure out how to build back better, let’s at least do that hard work of remembering that isolation and injustice are the real enemies—and help parents fight them together.