When is the Republican Party going to declare war on teachers unions?
Doing so would be smart politics as well as smart policy. There is no appreciable downside to the GOP taking on the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which already give nearly all their money and political support to Democrats. And the nation’s pupils have everything to gain, especially if they happen to be low-income minorities.
The move is long overdue, and the pandemic offers Republicans the perfect opportunity to explain to voters how the unions’ ironclad control over public education does grave harm to children. We’ve known from the earliest days of the virus that youngsters are the least likely to catch it or spread it to others. We also know that many low-income parents struggle with home schooling and need to go back to work. Distance learning exacerbates racial and economic achievement gaps and takes a heavy psychological toll on kids. Union leaders couldn’t care less.
California, which is the most populous state and currently has the lowest per capita Covid rate in the country, also has the highest percentage of school districts that remain entirely virtual. Teachers unions have used the pandemic to demand more money and more-generous benefits. They know that millions of Americans can’t return to work if kids can’t return to schools. For parents it’s a dilemma, but unions see it as leverage. The United Teachers of Los Angeles requested free child care for its members as a condition for returning to the classroom. Union clout is the main reason that California’s percentage of all-virtual school districts is more than three times the national average.
An exposé published in Sunday’s New York Post shows how diligently teachers unions have been working to capitalize on our misery. “In the days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their much-anticipated school-reopening guidelines on Feb. 12, the American Federation of Teachers launched a full-court press to shape the final document and slow the full-reopening of schools,” the Post reported. “The lobbying paid off. In at least two instances, language ‘suggestions’ offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim into the final text of the CDC document.”
The Biden administration isn’t “following the science.” It’s following orders. The nation’s largest teachers unions spent more than $40 million in the 2020 cycle to elect Democrats. And labor leaders are getting a fabulous return on that investment. The Covid-relief law President Biden signed in March allocates $123 billion for public schools, with no requirement that districts first reopen for in-person learning to receive the money.
Before the pandemic, the political landscape for teachers unions was improving. Recall that the Democrats had a strong 2018 midterm election. They not only regained control of the House but also picked up seven governorships and flipped more than 300 state legislative seats. In recent years, teacher walkouts in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Washington state and West Virginia were largely successful in garnering bigger school budgets, higher pay and smaller class sizes (which translates into more union jobs). The question now is whether Covid will reverse this momentum.
What Americans have learned from the lockdowns is the degree to which unions control not only the public school systems but by extension the everyday lives of tens of millions of parents with school-age children. If Republicans are smart, they won’t let voters forget this lesson anytime soon. Education always ranks high among the concerns of the electorate, and the virus exposed the catastrophic consequences of having so few school alternatives for families of modest means. Private schools, religious schools and charter schools have all outperformed traditional public schools during the pandemic, and teachers unions labor to limit access to better alternatives.
GOP candidates in the 2022 midterms could campaign hard on the unions’ myriad Covid cop-outs. Voters should know all about how the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, along with thousands of state and local affiliates, consistently gave priority to their adult members instead of the children and families they are supposed to serve. Moreover, Republicans could take this message directly to the communities hit hardest by the unwillingness of educators to do their jobs.
Republican outreach should include running ads on radio and television and social-media outlets with large black and Latino audiences. It should include visiting churches and barbershops in low-income neighborhoods to explain how voucher programs and charter schools change the power dynamic by giving parents the ability to switch school systems if the educational needs of their children aren’t met. Remind these voters that the union-controlled schools Democrats support have an abysmal record when it comes to educating minorities. With apologies to a former president, what the hell do Republicans have to lose?
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Appeared in the May 5, 2021, print edition.