School desk with mask and sanitizer
James V. Shuls

A universal system of public education would be easy if we all agreed on what it should look like. COVID-19 is making it pretty clear, however, that there is a wide range of opinions among Americans about how schools should operate this fall. Accordingly, we have seen some pretty intense conflicts as school boards make decisions that will impact the lives and livelihoods of every family in their school district. The lack of a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems caused by the pandemic should lead us to rethink the role traditional public school districts play in our lives.

In Springfield, Missouri, for example, school officials announced students would not be returning full-time in the fall. Instead, they will be on-campus two days a week and online the other three. Many parents, especially those whose lives and careers have been greatly impacted by the COVID-induced school closures, are unhappy with this arrangement. Thus far, more than 800 people have signed a petition for the school to offer more in-person learning.

During these strange times, it is clearer than ever that a single school bureaucracy simply cannot meet the varied needs of every student and every family. Should a family with health challenges be left with no virtual option because most of their neighbors want to resume in-class schooling? Should a single mother be forced to choose between putting food on the table and educating her child if schools remain closed?  The obvious answer is a resounding No, but we wouldn’t be in this position if our public education system was set up to fund students instead of systems.

If we allowed people more control over where their educational dollars were spent, we could provide educational options to every family.

There are no easy decisions for school boards when making decisions that affect so many lives. Giving people educational options, however, is a no brainer.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.