Class is now in session across the country. It’s a breath of fresh air after more than a year of students and parents struggling through remote learning. Teachers unions are now weaving a web of alternative facts to portray themselves as the heroes that brought back traditional classroom instruction. In reality, they prevented it.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is the Chief Weaver. Earlier this year, she took to Twitter to claim they have “tried to reopen schools safely since April 2020”—an outrageous talking point.
Months prior, the AFT lobbied the federal government to slow-walk a return to in-person classroom instruction. Caving to union pressure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance included language that granted their wish. The collusion triggered some congressional lawmakers to launch an inquiry into why the union was so influential. Fact check: Biden was the top 2020 individual recipient of teachers’ union dollars.
National unions squeezed Washington to disregard the science, showing schools were not a significant source of coronavirus spread. Local affiliates of union groups were the ground soldiers repeating the lie.
The Arizona Education Association held a “sickout strike” to force a school district in the state to abandon reopening plans. The Washington Teachers Union launched a similar stunt to block Washington D.C. students from returning to the classroom. A Florida teachers union filed a lawsuit to dispute a state order calling on schools to reopen. The Chicago Teachers Union argued that reopening schools was “rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny.”
Students in one northern Virginia school district returned to the classroom while many teachers called it in from home. Taxpayers had to hire “classroom monitors” to sit on-site with the students.
A recent report from McKinsey & Co. found K-12 students were four months behind in reading and five months behind in math compared to pre-pandemic levels. The picture is even bleaker for children of color and in low-income areas. Students at majority-Black schools finished the spring semester a full six months behind in both subjects. Another study from Yale made comparable discoveries. It finds, “school closures are…severely impairing the academic progress of children from low-income neighborhoods while having no significant detrimental effects on students from the country’s richest communities.”
Affluent families can turn to private schools or tutors for homeschooling when public schools are held hostage by the unions. It’s no coincidence that private school attendance jumped during the pandemic. For those parents who can’t financially swing education alternatives, their family earnings are compromised. They are forced to stay home rather than return to work, as their kids try to learn in a virtual classroom.
During the pandemic, the unions that kept schools closed continuously railed against charter schools, which provided disadvantaged families with more educational opportunities. Teachers unions have stymied the publicly funded but privately operated schools at every turn. They were blocking state funding, supporting lawsuits that question the constitutionality of, and pushing policies that cap the number of charter schools are common tactics in their playbook. In 2017, Weingarten compared school-choice programs to segregation.
Since when did more access to better schools become a bad thing?
While limiting pathways to education, unions also regularly block reforms that will improve traditional public schools. The AFT opposes firing poor-performing teachers. They resist paying higher wages to attract hard-to-recruit educators in math and science. And they fight performance-based compensation structures. As a result, the education level of students living in the world’s superpower is stagnating and unimpressively average. Thirty countries outperform U.S. students in math—including Lithuania, Latvia, and the Slovak Republic. And no significant improvements in reading have been made in two decades.
The actions by notorious Weingarten during the pandemic speak louder than words. The sad truth is that children are not the concern of the union leaders. As former AFT president Albert Shanker commented, “[w]hen schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
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