Politics, Markets, and Pandemics: Public Education’s Response to COVID-19

Politics, Markets, and Pandemics: Public Education’s Response to COVID-19

By Michael T. Hartney, Boston College, and Leslie K. Finger, University of North Texas

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization. As an arena that has historically been relatively insulated from national partisan cleavages, public schools provide a useful window into understanding the growing nationalization of local politics. Leveraging the fact that all school districts had to adopt a reopening plan in fall 2020, we assess the factors that influenced school district reopening decisions. We find that mass partisanship and vested interests best explain the degree to which schools reopened. Republican (Democratic) districts were far more (less) likely to reopen in person, while districts with stronger unions relied more on remote learning. Notably, we find little connection between reopening decisions and indicators measuring the severity of the virus. Finally, public schools were sensitive to the threat of student exit. Districts located in counties with more Catholic schools were somewhat more likely to reopen in person. We assess the implications of these findings for U.S. education policy and the study of local government more generally.


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