President Joe Biden likes to talk about “inflection points” in American history, usually when he’s describing his sweeping, progressive policy agenda and his sense of his administration’s importance as the nation recovers from a global pandemic. But true inflection points are usually visible only in retrospect, and one in particular might prove to have a more lasting and negative impact on his legacy than he realizes.
It happened in early February 2021, when Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s new director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), told the press that “there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.” She added that “vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.”
This was overwhelmingly welcome news for the millions of schoolchildren who had not set foot in a classroom since the previous spring—and it had a bipartisan tinge because it echoed the policy approach of red-state governors such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who had safely reopened schools in the fall.
It didn’t last. Within hours, the Biden administration was publicly undermining its own health official. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that when Walensky discussed school reopenings, she had been speaking in her “personal capacity,” not her official role—a patently ridiculous claim given that Walensky made the remarks during a White House COVID briefing.
Why the backpedaling? Simple: Saying it was safe to go back to school had angered one of the Biden administration’s most committed and powerful constituencies: the teachers’ unions. At the time, the American Federation of Teachers—an umbrella group that constitutes the second-largest such union in the country and one with no scientific or public-health expertise as part of its remit—was involved in shaping CDC recommendations for schools. Calls and emails and meetings between the AFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, and her staff with representatives from the White House and Walensky herself reveal just how influential the unions were when it came to policymaking at the CDC. Those communications were undisclosed at the time.
The New York Post broke the story in early May, using Freedom of Information Act requests that compelled the release of government emails. “In at least two instances,” the Post noted, language ‘suggestions’ offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim into the final text of the CDC document.” Union officials demanded the inclusion of language that would limit the ability of schools to reopen fully. Here was a sentence offered by the AFT: “In the event of high community-transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary.” A nearly verbatim version of that sentence appeared on page 22 of the final CDC guidance.
The AFT also wanted the guidance to allow for teachers “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk for … COVID-19” as well as “staff who have a household member” at risk to continue to work remotely, and so the final guidance included that as well. A February 11 letter further demanded that the CDC include specific, union-approved language about mitigation strategies and expressed concern about “the absence of a closure threshold” for schools.
Additional documents and emails obtained through a FOIA request by parents in Virginia reveal an unctuous Walensky emailing AFT leaders February 3 to “extend my gratitude for the language you have provided us below.” Walensky assured union leaders, “I wanted to be certain you knew it was being worked into (with just a few small tweaks) the school opening guidance. We have also included the executive summary you suggested. Please know we are listening and working hard to ensure your confidence and partnership in this endeavor.”
The CDC’s “partner” must have been pleased with the results. In a February 12 press release, Weingarten praised the new guidance: “Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence. For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.”
Weingarten cited “successful reopening strategies in New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C.” as well as the “$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan” for “creating a culture of trust and collaboration with educators and parents.” At the time, these supposedly “successful reopening strategies” had done little to help the majority of public-school students in those same cities; most students were still being denied in-person schooling.
As an example of scientifically grounded, reasonable public-health policy, the CDC’s February guidelines were an abject failure. Their adoption by many districts unnecessarily prolonged the closure of many schools. But they represented a triumph of what Reason’s Matt Welch has called the new “stakeholder science”—in which authoritative institutions make dubious decisions based on political pressure and then see themselves used as the authority for the dubious assumptions behind the politically motivated action.
The stakeholders aren’t afraid to exercise their power. When the story broke about union influence over the CDC, Weingarten was unrepentant, complaining on Twitter that the Post was “trying to make everyday advocacy look nefarious” and insisting, “This article describes basic advocacy. It’s not mysterious or clandestine. It’s routine.”
She’s right. Teachers’ union meddling in crucial public-health decision-making was instantly a feature, not a bug, of the Biden administration. Weingarten is particularly cozy with the Bidens, and there are pictures of her hugging the president (when he was on the campaign trail) and exchanging friendly messages on social media. According to Bloomberg News, on Biden’s first full day in office, January 21, First Lady Jill Biden “hosted the leaders of the country’s major teachers’ unions” at the White House. In May, Jill Biden tweeted thanks to Weingarten “for your leadership and friendship!”
Walensky’s spokesperson at the CDC defended the institution’s amenability to union lobbying: “As part of long-standing best practices, CDC has traditionally engaged with organizations and groups that are impacted by guidance and recommendations issued by the agency.”
And yet there was one group, arguably the one most “impacted” by the CDC guidance, who was never welcomed into this discussion (nor would they have known about it had reporters and a few frustrated parents not made FOIA requests): the parents of public-school children.
UNDERSTANDING the power and the hubris of today’s teachers’ unions requires revisiting the story of how teachers came to be viewed (and came to view themselves) as a heroic profession deserving of more resources and more respect.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan’s education department issued a famous report called “A Nation at Risk” that painted a bleak portrait of American schools. “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people,” the report argued. The sense of crisis spurred calls for better funding for schools, education reform, and efforts to improve the quality of teachers.
At the time the report was issued, the AFT had more than 600,000 members. In the ensuing decades, unions capitalized on public concern about the educational crisis to argue that teachers were underpaid and overworked. At the local and state level, unions made perennial demands on schools to hire more teachers and to provide them with the protections of tenure—while strenuously resisting reforms such as charter schools and school vouchers that might have undermined their power.
But when it came to policymaking, unions did not play a key role at the federal level, and their demands and objections were often ignored. The No Child Left Behind Act proposed by George W. Bush’s administration in 2001 was embraced by liberal hero Ted Kennedy and many Democrats even though the major teachers’ unions did not approve of the standards and goalposts in the legislation for student performance. Similarly, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative in 2009 introduced Common Core standards and teacher-evaluation procedures opposed by the unions.
But in recent years, unions have taken a more confrontational and politically activist stance. Teacher strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky in 2018 included significant demands for pay raises, which the teachers won. Extensive collective-bargaining rights have given unions more control over their workplace conditions, and with each victory, union bosses realized they need not be merely one part of the Democratic Party machine. Rather, they saw a path to becoming the dominating forces in that machine, particularly in deep-blue cites where Democrats effectively exercised one-party rule.
Today, two national teachers’ unions—the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA)—along with state, regional, and local teachers’ unions (and principals’ unions) form the largest and most powerful bloc of Democratic Party activists. The National Education Association is the nation’s largest public-sector union, with 3 million members, but it is Weingarten, the head of the 1.7-million-member AFT, who enjoys the most public visibility.
Unions have solidified their alliance with Democratic politicians, whose election coffers they fill with donations and whose campaigns they help to staff. As EducationNext notes: “Since 1990, the AFT and the NEA have regularly been among the top 10 contributors to federal electoral campaigns. They have forged an alliance with the Democratic Party, which receives the vast majority of their hard-money campaign contributions as well as in-kind contributions for get-out-the-vote operations.” In 2020, the AFT spent more than $20 million on political donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. All of it went to Liberal or Democratic candidates or organizations.
WHEN PANDEMIC lockdowns began in March 2020 and schools closed as part of the effort to save lives, most Americans gave their local officials the benefit of the doubt about the wisdom of doing so. Fear and anxiety were understandably widespread, and the science about the risks of transmission in school settings was still uncertain.
But as spring and summer wore on, some school officials, citing the changing evidence that COVID infections were rarely fatal for the young and that schools could safely be reopened with proper mitigation strategies, made plans to reopen in the fall. One study of schools in North Carolina by researchers at Duke University, published in Pediatrics, found a very low rate of in-school transmission of COVID. Many pediatrics and public-health experts published evidence that schools were safe, and urged reopening, especially as evidence mounted of the costs to children of distance learning. Private and parochial schools across the country were determined to reopen in person.
But America’s public educators, led by their unions, believed that any risk was too great. The majority of public-school teachers refused to return to classrooms even as they praised themselves for being brave “essential workers,” as Weingarten called them at the union’s annual convention last summer. In fact, as a study of COVID deaths in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found, education, training, and library workers are among the lowest-risk workers. Health-care workers faced 10 times the COVID mortality risk of teachers.
In the fall, as private and parochial schools reopened for in-person school, the nation’s public-school students were left with subpar virtual-learning options and a lot of empty promises. The public schools that did manage to reopen had one thing in common, however: They were in areas with weaker unions. As Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation found, the “relationship between unionization and reopening decisions remains substantively and statistically significant even after controlling for school district size and coronavirus deaths and cases per capita in the county during the month of July.” The “Return to Learn” school-reopening tracker of the American Enterprise Institute found that “districts in counties that voted for Joe Biden have three times the percentage of fully remote districts compared to counties that voted for Donald Trump.”
School districts that attempted to reopen regardless of union opposition met considerable resistance. In Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, teachers staged protests (and later an illegal “sick-out”) when local officials announced that students with disabilities could return to in-person learning. Unionized teachers went to the parking lots of schools where students with disabilities were returning to school and protested those kids—the most vulnerable children—and their parents in an effort to keep schools closed.
In Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the nation with more than half a million students, students have spent the entire 2020–2021 school year in virtual learning. Meanwhile, the union there has spent its time issuing a range of demands that must be met if they are to return to their jobs, including Medicare for All, defunding the police, and a ban on charter schools. “Normal wasn’t working for us before. We can’t go back,” the union declared.
In March 2021, when California Governor Newsom urged teachers to return to classrooms, 91 percent of Los Angeles teachers’ union members voted to refuse to return to in-person teaching, citing safety concerns. “UTLA members have voted overwhelmingly to resist a premature and unsafe physical return to school sites,” a spokesperson said. According to the Wall Street Journal, the union also called the state’s efforts to reopen schools “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”
The Chicago Teachers Union, which also delayed and obstructed a return to in-person learning, had time to create and circulate a dance video on social media featuring high-stepping teachers. This happened even as a report by ABC7 Chicago in March found that in many high schools in the city, almost half of students have never bothered to show up for their remote classes, a common problem in cities where unions dominate—and where high schools have been closed for more than a year.
Even after teachers were given priority for vaccination in many states—ahead of cancer patients and other at-risk individuals—they still refused to return to the classroom and continued to talk about COVID risks in apocalyptic terms. Seattle fifth-grade teacher Danielle Woods told a local radio station that “the vaccine is not a silver bullet. The vaccine is going to reduce risk but it’s not going to go to zero.” In Cleveland, union president Shari Obrenski told local news outlets, “Having a vaccination, and a first dose of a vaccination, doesn’t keep you from getting COVID. My vaccination does not help my students. My students are still at risk for COVID.” In Chicago, Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said, “Our members took a vote to keep learning remotely to avoid disaster.”
In other words, at every point, when scientific evidence demonstrated that schools were safe to reopen, the unions balked at returning to work. When the CDC announced in the spring that it was going to change the six-feet distancing rule in schools to three feet, which would allow for more students to return to in-person learning, the AFT’s Weingarten was apoplectic. “They are compromising the one enduring public health missive that we’ve gotten from the beginning of this pandemic in order to squeeze more kids into schools,” she told reporters. In a letter to Walensky, Weingarten insisted, “We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time.”
In late May, as COVID cases and deaths declined precipitously, union leaders were still claiming that schools were unsafe. As the Boston Globe reported, “the head of Massachusetts’ largest teachers union Friday called it ‘premature’ for the state to end all coronavirus-related protocols in schools this fall.” Previewing what will no doubt be the union’s summer narrative, she claimed officials “continually have failed to give proper deference to local situations, lower vaccination rates in communities of color, and the reluctance of parents there to send their children back to school full time in the fall.”
Recently, however, with vaccinations of eligible people rising to more than half of the American populace and the implicit end of the pandemic upon us, unions have shifted strategies. They launched a public-relations campaign peddling the lie that teachers’ unions had been advocates for school reopening all along. Weingarten was the subject of flattering profiles in the New York Times and the New Yorker about her supposed determination to ensure schools returned to normal, and she published an essay in the Atlantic that was little more than a glorified press release. The title of the piece, I kid you not, was: “Schools Must Open This Fall. In Person. Five Days a Week. The American Federation of Teachers, which I lead, is committed to making this happen.” This is the same person who, months earlier, threatened nationwide teacher strikes and claimed that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to schools trying to plan for a Fall 2020 reopening.
But as an analysis by Mike Antonucci at the 74Million, an education-policy publication, found: “After 11 months of school closures, we have a treasure trove of evidence of how they reacted to many and varied reopening plans. Even among the districts where schools eventually reopened, AFT unions offered more resistance than cooperation.” In other words: “Weingarten’s claim is the exact opposite of reality.”
The reality is that across the nation, in school districts where unions wield power, the same strategy was relentlessly pursued: Keep schools closed. In Miami, Antonucci notes, the teachers’ union sued the state to stop the “reckless and unsafe reopening of schools.” Their president claimed, “Lives are going to be lost.” Likewise, the president of the Broward Teachers Union asked, “What will you do when the deaths start happening?” Unions also sued to prevent school reopenings in Boston, and in cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., they organized “mental health” day mini-strikes and urged teachers not to return to the classroom.
Unionized teachers urged parents to refuse to return to in-person learning for the sake of…the teachers. “We sit endless hours, helping your children, and the community, every day, all day. We give up everything. And now you’re asking us to risk our lives? That’s too much,” the Baltimore teachers’ union president said.
In Northern Virginia, unions staged a protest featuring child-sized coffins; similar events in other school districts featured teachers dressed as death, complete with scythes and signs reading, “I can’t wait to meet my kids.” Teachers in Washington, D.C., piled fake body bags in front of the mayor’s office to protest plans for reopening.
Weingarten even told a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Jewish parents who wanted schools to reopen and were upset about union intransigence were “part of the ownership class” who “want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it.” This is a confounding statement coming from the person who leads a predominantly white union of middle-class workers whose success in preventing the reopening of public schools has disproportionately harmed nonwhite and disadvantaged children.
Truth to tell, these unions don’t have much respect for parents. When Weingarten tweeted praise for Biden’s bloated infrastructure plan in April, she noted, “115% of mothers with young children left their jobs in 2020 because of childcare responsibilities” (the actual percentage was 11.5 percent). Left unmentioned by Weingarten is the fact that most of those women had to shoulder those responsibilities because schools remained closed. Equally tone-deaf was Vice President Kamala Harris, who literally cackled as she told an audience in March, “More parents are seeing the value of educators when they had to bring their kids and say we’re not paying them nearly enough!”
There is an unspoken social compact that working parents have with the public-school system—particularly working parents who can’t afford either private school alternatives. Their kids are in school all day; the adults go to work. This compact has been destroyed by the unions’ behavior during the pandemic.
As for the kids? Despite the fact that Weingarten claims in her Twitter bio that she is “fighting 4 kids,” a more accurate description would be that she uses children as rhetorical shields for efforts by the union to gain power for teachers—a strategy she’s clearly intent on pursing into the fall.
Weingarten told MSNBC recently, “In the fall we have to first and foremost create a safe and welcoming environment.” In New York City, a United Federation of Teachers action group called MORE-UFT is intensifying the fear-mongering they engaged in this past school year. In a statement issued in late May, the group wrote, “The Mayor’s office and DOE leaders have made it clear that they intend to fill the schools with as many bodies as they can squeeze in, safety concerns or no.” They also insisted: “We also know that, contrary to repeated claims otherwise, schools contribute to community spread of Covid-19.”
This is a lie. In late May, a group of physicians, epidemiologists, and infectious-disease specialists wrote in the Washington Post, “As covid-19 cases continue to fall and vaccines demonstrate vigor against even the most concerning variants, it’s time to evaluate which pandemic restrictions are worth keeping in place.” Their first recommendation? “Children should return to their normal lives this summer and in the upcoming school year, without masks and regardless of their vaccination status. Overall, the risk to children is too low to justify the remaining restrictions they face.”
Despite such clear scientific evidence, in recent media appearances Weingarten has continued to demand masking, social-distancing requirements, caps on class sizes, and the necessity of allowing teachers who don’t want to teach in-person the option of teaching virtually in the fall. Weingarten still engages in fear-mongering, claiming that any change in the guidance that relaxes such restrictions “portends a potential surge of the virus.” And she recently told the Nation that vaccines shouldn’t be mandatory for teachers: “Teachers should have the right to decide whether they want the vaccine or not.” So much for following the science.
ONE OF THE REASONS the collusion between the Biden administration and the unions is so harmful—and an inflection point in the story of our country’s response to the pandemic—is that school policymaking, both by convention and law, is largely a local affair. The federal Department of Education can create plenty of mischief, and has, but the real power rests with local school boards (or, in some cities, with the mayor).
That balance of power understandably changed during the pandemic. Federal policies regarding health and safety were treated as gospel, not guidance, by many schools. But when teachers’ unions put pressure on federal public-health officials to alter the guidelines to suit the unions’ goals—not to reflect the needs of children or the realities of the pandemic—it undermined that balance of power. In that sense, the unions effectively circumvented the way our school system is meant to function in our democracy, by taking power out of the hands of the people whose kids attend their local public school and placing it firmly in the hands of a special-interest group whose sole aim is to get more benefits for its members.
In states and school districts with powerful unions, the threat of strikes is unmatched by any equivalent power on the side of school officials (or parents). Thanks to collective-bargaining agreements negotiated by many unions, school officials are often legally barred from firing teachers. While Biden’s CDC was rewriting its guidance for schools, it didn’t get input from other stakeholders—parent groups, for example. Instead, it got input (and directives) from one of its biggest donors, whose main policy goal was keeping schools closed because teachers didn’t want to go back.
The end result of this union power grab is that many parents—often the most engaged and the most able to afford to do so—are voting with their feet to leave the public-school system.
Cities such as San Francisco have already seen significant enrollment declines. In early June, the school system reported that thousands of parents had fled the city’s school system, prompting even the liberal San Francisco Chronicle to editorialize, “The missing thousands represent lost faith and lasting damage to public education institutions and unions that took advantage of an emergency to shirk their responsibility to the state’s children.”
In New York City, public-school enrollment numbers reveal a significant drop; as far back as January, Chalkbeat reported, “New York City’s traditional public schools lost more students this year than the previous 14 years combined.” Similar declines in enrollment are evident in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia—all places where teachers’ unions succeeded in keeping public schools closed far longer than scientific evidence clearly showed was necessary.
Declining enrollment numbers mean less money for public schools since school budgets are based on the number of students enrolled at any given schools—which translates to decreased demand for teachers.
The unions’ behavior has also had the unintended consequence of raising the political consciousness of many parents. Their experience battling unions and school boards during the past year has led them to see themselves as an interest group that needs to organize to protect their children’s right to an education. Parents in California who were advocating for the reopening of their schools recently formed a nonprofit organization that aims to recruit school-board candidates. Parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, have also organized a bipartisan group called the Fairfax County Parents Association, for the purpose of “empowering parents to advocate on behalf of their children.”
As the Christian Science Monitor reported, while in most years many school-board officials run unopposed, “this year, almost two dozen of the country’s largest school districts in five states have already had school-board elections, and according to a Monitor analysis, these elections had an average of 2.9 candidates per seat. No seat went unopposed.” There have also been a significant number of school board recall efforts across the country. As Saundra Davis, a parent in the Fairfax County school system, warned the county school board during a recent meeting, “you have triggered a bipartisan tidal wave of parental pushback.”
Parents have filed lawsuits (and in some cases, won) over continued school closures across the country and have organized across social media. Randi Weingarten went on television in May to complain about these conflicts: “Teachers are tired; they are exhausted. We have to find a way to repair and nourish them as well as families in terms of attracting and retaining our teaching force…. It’s not time to do the blame game.” But parents are increasingly happy to assign blame where blame is due: on unions and the craven public officials who caved to their demands.
They have spent a year bearing witness to union hypocrisy, such as the Chicago teachers’ union official who argued that it was unsafe for teachers to return to the classroom while posting images of herself poolside (and mask-less) in Puerto Rico on vacation, and the president of the Berkeley, California, teachers’ union who has resisted reopening public schools but whose daughter has enjoyed full-time in-person education at a private school.
The narrative of teachers as heroes who are underpaid and undervalued and overworked is no longer viable except as a groveling talking point for politicians looking for support. Parents of school-age children have seen the reality. With the encouragement of their unions, far too many teachers overvalued themselves and underdelivered this year. They have no meaningful competition for their services, and, as the year revealed, far too many of them have no meaningful commitment to acting like professionals. Whatever mild dislike of teachers’ unions many Americans harbored, until recently their worst perceived sin was their support of incompetent teachers, perhaps with a sprinkling of corruption. Today, they are viewed by an increasing number of Americans (across the political spectrum) as actively harmful.
In Charter Schools and Their Enemies, Thomas Sowell diagnosed the problem succinctly: “Much lofty rhetoric has been deployed by teachers unions in their public relations campaigns to promote their own interests, as if they were promoting the interests of schoolchildren. But the late Albert Shanker, head of the United Federation of Teachers, was honest enough to state the plain fact: ‘When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren’.”
Weingarten’s messaging now is “Return. Recover. Reimagine,” and she’s been going around the country calling for a “renaissance” in public education—a renaissance that, coincidentally, would pour more money into her already bulging coffers. Why should we reward the people whose refusal to work for more than a year contributed to the decline they now claim they can treat with their “renaissance”?
The purpose of the school system is to educate children, to serve children, to meet the needs of the nation’s children. Its purpose is not full employment for teachers, or administrators, or bureaucrats, or union bosses. A true renaissance in public education would require breaking the back of the unions that have done so much damage to that purpose. The scientifically incoherent, partisan, and morally reprehensible strategy they pursued should not be forgotten, nor forgiven.
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