California's "deal" to reopen schools is no deal at all

First the good news. After months of stalled negotiations, California has reached a deal to reopen the public schools for in-person learning by next month. Hurray! But you know that a sentence like that never appears under my byline without a “now for the bad news” segment following close on its heels. Looking into the details of this “deal” it’s not at all clear if any of the underlying logjams have been cleared up or if the target reopening date can be achieved by more than a fraction of the schools. But I suppose Governor Gavin Newsom really needed a good headline as he prepares to face a recall vote. (Associated Press)

California’s public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s legislative leaders.

California, the most populous U.S. state, has 1,037 public school districts, more than 6.1 million students and about 319,000 teachers.

Most public school classes have not been held in-person since March of last year because of the coronavirus. Many districts have struggled to reach agreements with teachers’ unions on the best way to return students and staff to the classroom.

The first thing to note here is that this is not a deal struck between the Governor and the teachers’ unions. It’s a deal with the legislature to funnel more money into the school districts and “direct” other policy changes intended to “encourage” school districts to send the kids back to the classrooms. Representatives for the unions are trying to paint a good face on this, likely to toss a bone to the Democratic governor.

California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas called the deal “a huge victory.” But he was only referring to the portion of the bill that prioritizes the vaccination of teachers. The bill mandates that 10% of the vaccine doses received by the state be set aside for teachers. That’s insane since there are a little over 300,000 teachers in a state with a population just shy of 40 million, including millions of front-line healthcare workers and senior citizens who still haven’t been able to get an appointment to be vaccinated.

On top of that, there is no actual requirement for putting teachers back into classrooms. Even setting aside the vaccine doses, it’s going to take months to vaccinate every teacher in all of the schools and everybody knows it. As long as the unions continue to stubbornly insist on full vaccination, the schools will not be fully reopening.

What this bill really does is allocate a massive pile of taxpayer money above and beyond the schools’ normal budgets, more than six billion dollars, to shovel into the school districts that reopen. But the definition of “reopen” is buried in the details and most of the schools won’t have to do much to qualify for the cash. Schools in districts with the highest rates of infections will only have to reopen their kindergarten through second-grade classes. Even in the lower tiers (with fewer COVID cases), schools will only have to reopen their K-6 classes plus one middle-school grade to qualify for the funds.

This is a big potential payday for the school districts, but it doesn’t sound like there will be much “reopening” going on except in the more rural districts with very low infection rates. And most of those schools are already offering in-person learning now anyway. But that brings up the other missing element in the bill. Even the schools that fully qualify for the money won’t have to go back to full, in-person classes for all students. They’ll just have to offer it. Any students or parents who still want to stay at home and work remotely will be able to.

This deal is all carrot and no stick. I’m not shocked that the unions are describing it as a huge victory. They clearly walked away from the bargaining table smiling because they totally took Gavin Newsom’s lunch money and made him cry.