- David Menefee-Libey
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COVID-19 upended schooling across the United States, but with what consequences for the state-level institutions that drive most education policy? This paper reports findings on two related research questions. First, what were the most important ways state government education policymakers changed schools and schooling from the moment they began to reckon with the seriousness of COVID-19 through the first full academic year of the pandemic? Second, how deep did those changes go – are there indications the pandemic triggered efforts to make lasting changes in states’ education policymaking institutions? Using multiple-methods research focused on Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oregon, we documented policies enacted during the period from March 2020 through June 2021 across states and across sectors (traditional and choice) in three COVID-19-related education policy domains: school closings and reopenings, budgeting and resource allocation, and assessment and accountability systems. We found that states quickly enacted radical changes to policies that had taken generations to develop. They mandated sweeping school closures in Spring 2020, and then a diverse array of school reopening policies in the 2020/2021 school year. States temporarily modified their attendance-based funding systems and allocated massive federal COVID-19 relief funds. Finally, states suspended annual student testing, modified the wide array of accountability policies and programs linked to the results of those tests, and adapted to new assessment methods. These crisis-driven policy changes deeply disrupted long-established patterns and practices in education. Despite this, we found that state education governance systems remained resilient, and that at least during the first 16 months of the pandemic, stakeholders showed little interest in using the crisis to trigger more lasting institutional change. We hope these findings enable state policymakers to better prepare for future crises.
Purpose: Nearly all schools in the United States closed in spring 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We analyze traditional public and charter school reopenings for the 2020-21 school year in five urban districts. We provide a rich and theoretically grounded description of how and why educational leaders made reopening decisions in each of our case districts.
Research Methods: We used data from a multiple-case study from March 2020 to July 2021. The research team conducted 56 interviews with school, district, and system-level leaders; triangulated with publicly available data; and also drew on interview data from a subsample of parents and guardians in each of our sites. We analyzed these data through qualitative coding and memo writing, and conducted detailed single- and cross-case analyses.
Findings: School system leaders in our case sites generally consulted public health authorities, accounted for state-level health and educational guidance, and engaged with and were responsive to the interests of different stakeholders. Districts’ adherence to and strategic uses of public health guidance, as well as a combination of union-district relations and labor market dynamics, influenced reopening. Parents, city and state lawmakers, and local institutional conditions also played a role, helping to explain differences across cases.
Implications: In contrast to the “politics or science” framing that has dominated research and public discourse on school reopening, we show that local pandemic conditions and local political dynamics both mattered and in fact were interrelated. Our findings have some implications for how educational leaders might navigate future crises.