Don’t confuse virtual learning with the teachers unions’ pandemic ‘learning’

The following was originally published in the Washington Examiner magazine.

In a letter to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal, American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten leaps to the defense of her union, which is facing well-earned criticism after the latest report of how badly it failed students during the pandemic. Weingarten, predictably, implies critics of the union are attacking hardworking teachers rather than the special interests that forced teachers and students into crisis. But tucked amid Weingarten’s tired talking points is a relatively new one that deserves closer attention.

“No teacher I know enjoyed remote and hybrid learning,” said Weingarten, “which, pre-pandemic, was championed by Betsy DeVos.” The implication is startling. Weingarten admits remote learning during the pandemic was fundamentally flawed but then tries to equate COVID-19 Zoom school with longtime efforts by school choice advocates to bring more educational options to families before the virus even reached the United States.

This argument misses the point, to say the least.

Supporters of true remote learning know that one size doesn’t fit all. Every student is different and has different needs. For many students, before and after the pandemic, virtual school met those needs.

That was the case for many of my friends and family while growing up in the school choice mecca of Florida. Whether because of bullying or learning difficulties, or something else, I knew plenty of students who did better learning from home. As more innovations like Khan Academy and Coursera became mainstream and virtual charter schools expanded, these options only became more promising for students who needed them.

Similarly, Pennsylvania’s cyber charters have been a lifesaver for parents like Sharon Sedlar , whose daughter Virginia finally got “the safety and security she has come to desperately need” in an online school. Sharon was even inspired to start her own education choice organization to fight for other students after witnessing the difference that choice made in her daughters’ lives.

It’s no secret that education options are expanding, with innovation and growth in everything from homeschooling, blended schools, and pods, to private schools and, yes, online learning. In fact, virtual school options were growing even before 2020. After the pandemic, they grew more , as enrollment in traditional public schools plunged.

But there is a massive gulf between intentional online learning and the crisis-driven fiasco that started in early 2020.

Most district schools were not ready for real virtual learning and were not able to adapt as the pandemic and closures dragged on. In the early days of the pandemic, when information was scarce and concerns of in-school spread were high, these struggles were somewhat inevitable. But the fact that Weingarten and her allies kept schoolhouse doors closed — even as scientists learned more about how the virus spreads, European schools opened, teachers got first access to vaccine doses and were widely protected, and record funding poured in — that part was not inevitable at all. It was the educational blunder of a generation and one for whom the bills are only starting to come due. Misdirection, finger-pointing, and throwing real virtual educators under the bus won’t change that fact.

Virtual schools provide exciting innovation and tailored learning options to students. Suggesting that supporters of these options cannot criticize the educational fiasco created by unions during the pandemic makes as much sense as calling aviation enthusiasts hypocrites for disliking plane crashes.

Parents saw these failures up close. It’s no coincidence that the years since 2020 have seen record growth in school choice programs that will give families a way out the next time the system fails them. Its defenders will keep coming up with endless excuses, but parents know better and are ready to fund students instead.

Rebekah Bydlak is the associate director of communications and coalitions at the American Federation for Children.

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