Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

What Education Envy Looks Like

Like most parents with school-aged kids, I think my kids’ public schools do a fine job.

There’s a longstanding American belief along the lines of, “My local school is great, but most other public schools perform poorly.”

This pandemic has thrown a wrench in that paradoxical belief system. For the first time, I’ve been hearing from tons of middle-class and affluent parents pointing out how their kids were getting shortchanged by their schools. I tend to agree with them, or at least sympathize with their concerns.

Most students needing special education services have not been getting what they need through virtual schooling. In some schools that reopened, and where the vast majority of students returned in person, the few who stayed with online learning were treated as afterthoughts. It’s hard to watch students in neighboring districts attend in-person classes while your own kids are isolated at home for months on end.

Even though I understand and appreciate the reasons that virtual schooling has been necessary in many circumstances, I’ve also felt the pangs of education envy for the first time.

I wish my children were in a school that had all the resources and space needed to safely educate them, so they would not miss out on the experiences some of their peers are still having. And we’re among the lucky ones: Our teachers have gone above and beyond for their students.

The quality of education that kids are getting during this pandemic depends on many elements outside parents’ control: How well does your community adhere to CDC guidelines? How tech-savvy are your kids’ teachers? How fast and reliable is your internet service? How agile and responsive is the administration?

All of a sudden, inequality has landed on the doorsteps of those unaccustomed to it.

“Inequality” is another way of saying “unfairness.” Our society has long tolerated unfairness in schooling when it’s based on how much money people have: Kids from middle-class and wealthy families get better educations than kids from poor families. It’s been that way for so long that it’s hard for some people to imagine it could be any other way.

But in this pandemic, people of similar socioeconomic classes saw their children affected in unequal ways. And when we perceive that someone in the same boat as us is getting something better, for no apparent reason, it provokes a strong reaction.

In the Rockwood School District in suburban St. Louis, a group of parents became so incensed over virtual schooling that they threatened to sue the district, and insulted the teachers and administrators online. Last fall, more than 200 people protested outside the home of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, demanding that he allow high school sports teams to compete.

It was strange to watch adults agitate for youth athletics while those same youth were still shut out of classrooms. But the outrage was about more than just sports; it was about what people feel entitled to.

Parents who felt their schools were denying their children opportunities argued that the detriments of virtual school far outweighed the risk of teachers and staff catching a deadly virus.

That’s still debatable.

What’s more clear is that the students who have lost the most educational ground are the most marginalized -- those from lower-income families, those with disabilities and those living in the most underserved areas. All the inequities that we know are baked into our education system, which affect students’ entire life outcomes, have been amplified and exacerbated by the pandemic.

The thing is, it’s hard to get other parents to care much about the plight of students who have less than their own. I wonder if we will remember this sting of unfairness, the desperation of wanting more for your kids, once the pandemic is over.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but what if this close encounter with inequity challenges our indifference to unfairness elsewhere?