Kids need schools open. So does the economy

Pandemic made an education system that was already failing worse

An empty hallway is pictured at Heather Hills Elementary School in Bowie, Md., in 2020. For anyone concerned about our students’ future, failing to reopen schools this fall is not an option, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An empty hallway is pictured at Heather Hills Elementary School in Bowie, Md., in 2020. For anyone concerned about our students’ future, failing to reopen schools this fall is not an option, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 21, 2021 at 6:00am

The nation’s K-12 schools and the education of our children have long been seen as primarily the prerogative of local and state government. Thus, education, as an issue, usually gets minimal attention from the national media and even many on Capitol Hill see it as a secondary federal issue, best addressed outside Washington, D.C. 

The COVID-19 school closures, the behavior of teachers’ unions and a clash over school curriculums, though, have all changed that dynamic. For many people, especially parents who are still in the dark about their schools’ plans for a return to normal, education has become a water cooler topic. 

Sixteen months of the pandemic, and its unimaginable consequences, have seen the electorate grow alarmed about school closures, not only their academic impact but the behavioral, social and mental effects on children. And while the country’s economic outlook remains unclear, there is growing concern about what the shutdown of much of our education will mean for the nation’s economy.

In our June 7-10 Winning the Issues survey, we found that 73 percent of voters see the school closures as having an impact on the national economy, with 33 percent saying a “great deal” and 40 percent “some” impact.  Overall, only 14 percent said the closures will have little or no impact.

By party, Republicans are the most concerned about the economic impact, with 41 percent seeing school closures as having “a great deal of impact,” compared with 29 percent of independents and 28 percent of Democrats. Not surprisingly, 43 percent of parents, the largest group, believe the closures will have “a great deal of impact,” aligning closer to Republicans than independents or Democrats.

Not just students

Thanks to an analysis done by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, we now have some indication of the negative toll the COVID-19 school closures are likely to take in the years ahead, both on the nation’s GDP and on the wages of future workers.

Wharton estimated that by 2050, the learning loss from the school shutdowns would reduce the nation’s GDP by 3.6 percent, as impacted students enter and make up a greater share of the workforce. That’s the macro, long view.

But while the economic impact of the closures will be less obvious in the near term, the analysis also found that future workers, whose education was disrupted during the pandemic, can expect a 3.5 percent decrease in hourly wages compared with those who may have been able to continue their education throughout the shutdown.

Wharton’s research paints a bleak future saying, “Government tax revenues decline and, consequently, government debt cumulates more quickly. Higher debt along with less total savings by individuals with lower incomes leads to a lower real capital stock, lowering wages and GDP further. By 2050, the nation’s capital stock will be 4.1 percent lower and government debt will be 5.2 percent higher. Note that current primary schoolers will be aged 34 to 40 in 2050, so the drop in their productivity will continue to affect the economy for many years afterwards.”

The analysis also found that students “currently in grades K-5 from disadvantaged backgrounds will have on average 10.9 percent lower labor income in 2050 than was expected before the closures, while those in grades 6-12 from disadvantaged backgrounds will have 8.2 percent less labor income.”  

This is a sobering report, especially when read in the context of the terrible state of our education system before the pandemic. It’s important that as we debate whether schools will open with or without masks next month, with or without vaccinations, with or without teachers in the classroom, we don’t lose sight of the thing that matters most: the educational performance of students.

Failing grades

The data is clear. Our education system was failing too many students before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. On that point, perhaps the leadership of the teachers’ unions ought to be more concerned about their performance.

International testing shows that, as a country, we need to be doing better, a lot better. The 2018 Programme for International Student Achievement test put U.S. students 30th in the world in math, with China topping the list and Russia ahead of American students too. 

Recent results of the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in math and reading skills of fourth and eighth graders in public schools are equally disturbing. In 2017, only 39.5 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math and only 35.4 percent were proficient in reading. By 2019, math scores only ticked up to 40.4 percent, while reading slipped to 34.3 percent.

Eighth graders did even worse, going down in math from 33.4 percent in 2017 to 32.9 percent in 2019. It was a similar story with reading, with eighth graders’ scores dropping from 34.7 percent in 2017 to 32.4 percent in 2019. Remember, this was before the pandemic.

A look at local school districts is even more concerning. Baltimore City Schools is a good example. Although Baltimore’s per capita student spending puts it fifth in the country, its student achievement performance has been dismal for decades. COVID-19 has only made it worse.

In the second quarter of 2019-2020 school year, 24 percent of high school students in the Baltimore City Schools had a GPA below 1.0, in and of itself a terrible number. But today, that figure has risen to 41 percent. In January, the head of the city schools, Dr. Sonja Santelises admitted that the number of students failing classes during the pandemic had almost doubled. Sadly, Baltimore isn’t an anomaly. 

The Wharton report shows in stark terms the value of a good education, to the country and to every American. It is how we build and sustain a strong, productive society, and, without it, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “our present state of liberty” may be “a short-lived possession.”

In many places, especially in big-city school districts, the prospects of schools reopening in the fall are now being called into question because of the emergence of the delta variant. If the Wharton report tells us anything, it is that failing to open the schools is not an option that works for either kids or the economy. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.