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Teachers Unions Have Always Been Terrible

They have only worked to destroy local control of education, prevent accountability, and deny parents a significant voice in their children's education.

Americans have been shocked by how teachers unions have blocked school re-openings in many states despite the disastrous learning lag during this pandemic.  In Montgomery County, Maryland, unreliable “distance learning” produced a more than 500 percent increase in the number of black and Hispanic students failing classes. McKinsey consultants estimate that, if the shutdown continues to the end of this school year, “students of color could be six to 12 months behind [due to lost learning], compared with four to eight months for white students.” But teachers unions are claiming that, unlike the vast majority of other American workers, their members are entitled to risk-free environments.  

Unions have vilified any politician or parent who has sought to re-open schools. The Chicago Teachers Union proclaimed: “The push to reopen schools is based in sexism, racism, and misogyny.” Joe Biden owes his election victory in part to the teachers unions, and last week, the White House rejected the recommendation to re-open schools from Biden’s appointee as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. And on Friday, the CDC issued new guidance for school safety during the pandemic. As National Public Radio observed, “Rather than a political push to reopen schools, the update is a measured, data-driven effort to expand on old recommendations.” One of the clearest lessons of this pandemic is that politicians will always be able to find data to justify whatever restrictions or delays they favor. With or without the CDC recommendations, “honesty in shutdowns” remains as unlikely as #ZeroCovid. Reason magazine’s Matt Welch predicts that “CDC’s new ‘reopening’ guidance will keep schools closed in the Fall.” During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to re-open schools within 100 days of taking office. But now Biden is betraying that promise. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week that the Biden goal of reopening the schools within 100 days will be satisfied if 50 percent of schools are open “at least one day a week.”

The behavior of teachers unions during this pandemic confirms the nickname that Forbes  magazine gave the NEA in the 1990s: “The National Extortion Association.” This latest betrayal of American students is no surprise, considering the unions’ long history of sabotaging learning. Since the 1970s, the National Education Association has been the leading advocate of “no-fault” teaching: whatever happens, don’t blame the teacher. Unions have launched strikes to prevent “parental interference” in public education. The Chicago Tribune concluded in 1988 that the Chicago Teachers Association has “as much control over operations of the public schools as the Chicago Board of Education” and “more control than is available to principals, parents, taxpayers, and voters.” The Tribune noted that “even curriculum matters, such as the program for teaching children to read, are written into the [union] contract, requiring the board to bring any proposed changes to the bargaining table.” 

Teachers unions have worked to destroy local control of education, subvert standards, prevent teacher accountability, and deny parents a significant voice in their children’s education. In the late 1970s, the NEA denounced back-to-basics as “irrelevant and reactionary.” An NEA publication asserted that such reforms were orchestrated by the “neo-conservative New Right, a mixture of taxpayer groups, fundamentalists, and a few unreconstructed racists.” The same publication denounced minimum competency testing for students because it supposedly “sacrificed children who are black and poor on the altar of accountability.” As Richard Mitchell noted in his 1981 classic, The Graves of Academe, the NEA has helped debase American public schools because its members “wanted to be not teachers but preachers, and prophets too, charging themselves with the cure of the soul of democracy and the raising up in the faith of true believers.” For decades, the NEA pushed to have “social studies” replace history, government, and other classes. The result: American students are appallingly ignorant of the Constitution, American history, and American culture.

Teachers unions increasingly look like conspiracies to protect incompetent teachers and impoverish local taxpayers. Teachers unions are especially powerful in inner cities, where teacher pay is often highest and teacher performance is usually the worst. As far back as 1974, Mario Fantini noted in his book What’s Best for Children, “For many black and Puerto Rican parents, the teachers unions now represent the ‘enemy.’” A 1992 Detroit Free Press investigation entitled “Shielding Bad Teachers” found that it takes a Michigan school district seven years and costs an average of $100,000 to fire a single incompetent public school teacher. Seven years is over half of the schooling time of the average pupil. The Free Press concluded, “No protections are built in for the state’s 1.5 million public school students, who can suffer physical, sexual or educational abuse.” Thanks in large part to NEA priorities, by 1980 the average time spent studying traditional subjects in high school was less than three hours a day. A vast increase in government spending for schools has failed to undo the damage to students’ reading ability.

The clout of the teachers unions has become far more perilous during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have perennially behaved as if they were entitled to waste kids’ time, and now teacher unions feel entitled to practically waste a year of children’s lives. When lockdowns were first being imposed in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proclaimed a standard that guided many policymakers: “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” Teachers unions have rallied around a similar motto: “If one teacher dies, isn’t that too many?” But like most union-backed policies, this ignores the collateral damage on American children. A Journal of the American Medical Association analysis concluded that shutting down the schools would reduce the current crop of students’ collective years of life by more than five million, based on “lower income, reduced educational attainment, and worse health outcomes.”

Private schools have safely re-opened in many cities and states where government schools remain padlocked. As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Bill McGurn wrote recently, “Catholic schools prove you can keep classrooms open while keeping Covid-19 at bay, which gave teachers unions another reason to resent them. The good news is that Covid-19 has heightened awareness that too many kids are held in education limbo by public-school systems that cannot put their students first because they are hostage to the unions.” Tom Carroll, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, observed, “The science is clear that there is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for poor and minority children most at danger of falling behind.”

School systems are finally responding to outraged parents, but with sham school re-openings. After Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all of the state’s school systems to start in-person classes by March 1, the Montgomery County school system pretended to comply. Similar to the response in school systems in the Virginia suburbs, Montgomery will hire “classroom monitors” to oversee students sitting in desks while teachers remain absent from the classroom. A Maryland parents’ organization bitterly complained: “Staring at a Chromebook while your teacher teaches on a screen is not in-person instruction, and it is frankly unacceptable. It is clear [the school system] does not want to embrace a true return to schools.” One Montgomery County mother of two students groused that the new system “sounds like glorified babysitting.”

Chicago is suffering similar shenanigans. The city sought to placate teacher unions by spending “$100 million on personal protective equipment, disinfectants, ventilation improvements, and portable air purifiers.” But then the teachers union announced that they could not return to work until all school employees were vaccinated. Mayor Lori Lightfoot groused that the teachers union leadership “left us with a big bag of nothing.” 

President Biden endlessly appeals for “unity” while he sacrifices the interests of millions of children to his political supporters. CNN anchor Jake Tapper commented last week on Twitter, “I’ve yet to see any evidence the Biden administration disagrees with teachers unions. Even when THEIR OWN health officials are saying something different.” Biden’s tacit support of school shutdowns promises that in the coming years his administration will sacrifice children in other ways to placate teachers unions. America will see a new “achievement gap” between privately educated students and those whose brains were offered up on the altar of teacher union power. 

One of the clearest lessons of the COVID pandemic is that public employee unions cannot be trusted with children’s minds.  Parents and politicians should speedily move to maximize the number of students who can exploit vouchers to escape public schools and to repudiate laws and labor agreements that are helping blight a rising generation.  If politicians continue kowtowing to unions, parents must make their wrath felt or forfeit their children’s future.

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.