If parents thought that teachers’ unions might emerge somewhat chastened by their performance during the nation’s pandemic year, think again.
In a recent interview in The Atlantic, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association—the nation’s largest teachers’ union—denied that many parents of school-age children in the United States blame the recalcitrance of the teachers’ unions for harmful, extended school closures last year.
Reporter Emma Green told Pringle that there is a perception “that teachers’ unions have stood in the way of school reopening during the pandemic, pursuing protracted contract negotiations that were more focused on adults than on the needs of kids.”
Pringle’s response? “It is a perception. It is not a reality.” She added, “The schools that stayed open were school districts that worked directly with educators and with their unions to make decisions that were best in terms of keeping students and all of the people in that population healthy.”
That is a lie. The reality, one parents should keep in mind as the new school year begins, is that school closures were directly linked to union power. A new study by Joshua Coval at Harvard Business School that examined the pandemic responses of the nation’s 150 largest school districts found a stark similarity among the districts that kept schools closed: “Schools that opted for virtual instruction during the 2020-2021 year were schools with a history of favoring teachers over students and teachers with seniority over teachers that are new and/or high- performing. Online schools also tended to be in urban settings, schools with more minorities, schools with more students from low socioeconomic status households, and schools located in low Covid rate counties.”
The results for students? “Districts that chose virtual instruction exhibited a far greater willingness to prioritize teacher interests over those of students,” and “this prioritization is associated with significant costs in terms of student test results and graduation rates.” This directly contradicts the unions’ claims that all-virtual learning was just as effective as in-person learning. What’s more, it explains unions’ repeated attempts to thwart any measurement of learning loss among students.
It will come as no surprise to parents that the schools that denied children in-person education already employed the least hard-working teachers and had the lowest-performing students: “At the schools that chose to be online, the average teacher works 100 fewer hours per year than the average teacher in the schools that chose to educate their students in person,” the Harvard study found. “For the K-12 student in an online school, this difference in hours cumulates to over a half-year less instruction by the time they graduate relative to their peer at an in-person school.”
In other words, during the pandemic, when teachers got what they wanted (less work and no in-person teaching while still being paid a full-time salary), it was the students who paid the price.
Such facts have not swayed the unions. When asked by the Atlantic about the fact that school closures had the most detrimental impact on the most vulnerable students, including those from lower-income households and minority students, Pringle again denied this fact. Instead, she claimed that minority parents’ fears about in-person learning were justified by their “lived experiences”—even though the scientific evidence about the safety of in-person learning for students entirely contradicts that “experience.”
Pringle even had the audacity to cite Baltimore as an example of how virtual learning is a reasonable substitute for in-person education: “When I visited schools recently in Baltimore, the educators shared that they had learned so much about the opportunities in virtual learning that they’re bringing those into in-person learning for the fall,” Pringle said.
Those “opportunities” have already produced dismal results. As one report found, “Nearly half, 41%, of all Baltimore high school students enrolled with the public school district earned below a 1.0 GPA during the first three quarters of the 2020-2021 school year.” Baltimore’s educators don’t seem all that concerned about learning loss, particularly among its already-struggling minority students: Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises told a reporter that the school system would not be applying “punitive” measures for students who failed classes last year and, in particular, have been evaluating grading methods that reflect the “unique circumstances” that “Black people have faced.”
The teachers’ unions are poised to continue their insistence that their perceptions matter more than the realities of the needs of students. As Noah Rothman has argued, teachers’ unions have already started fear-mongering about COVID-related closures for the upcoming school year, claiming that nothing will be “normal” and parents should expect more virtual learning.
The unions are focused on continuing to exercise power and demand more money for the teachers (whose union dues make organizations like the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers some of the most powerful lobbying groups in the nation). Note, for example, how Pringle prioritizes her demands for schools to reopen: “That means the money, the people, and the time to be sure that schools are the safest place in any community. For that to be true, the community has to work with schools to ensure that they follow the science, listen to the infectious-disease experts, and then make decisions that will keep their students safe.”
Although Pringle cloaks her unions’ demands in the responsible language of “safety,” union policies directly undermine children’s health. Despite invoking the advice of “infectious-disease experts,” Pringle still refuses to insist that teachers should be vaccinated against COVID. Pringle told the Atlantic that she “strongly encouraged vaccination” but told the reporter that “regular testing should be available as an alternative to legal mandates.” As Pringle said, “We are calling for districts and employers to work directly with educators and their unions to address the complexities of vaccinations and accommodations that will need to be made for educators.” That’s a lot of muddy rhetoric to avoid stating a simple truth: The nation’s largest teachers’ union opposes mandatory vaccination for teachers.
As well, Pringle acts as if there is a settled scientific consensus about the need for young children to wear masks (when that has not been the policy in many European countries, for example). She invokes the language of safety to justify a policy that would mainly protect the teachers who continue to refuse vaccination: “Most parents want everything done to keep their kids safe. Most parents want their students to be back to in-person learning, and they know that for that to happen, every mitigation strategy has to be put in place: vaccinations, masks, cleaning, ventilation, distancing.” (The CDC no longer recommends deep cleaning as a mitigation measure).
Throughout the interview, like her American Federation of Teachers counterpart Randi Weingarten frequently does, Pringle uses children as human shields. She doesn’t represent the needs or interests of children; their parents do. But she’s clearly discovered the value of using them as cover to advance her union’s agenda. “We know that the best place for students—and educators—to be is in person with one another,” Pringle says. “We’re going to continue to try to ensure that is available for all of our students throughout the country. But we also know that we have to keep our kids safe.” As the Atlantic noted, “Pringle refused to rule out calling for hybrid or remote learning if coronavirus cases continue to rise.”
There’s a reason many parents are treating teachers’ unions like enemy combatants in a protracted war over their children’s education: Unions have repeatedly behaved like their enemies. Pringle’s recent interview suggests the battle continues.