The prolonged closure of in-person education across the nation isn’t merely a frustration for parents and students—it is a radical demonstration of just how destructive the political power of teacher unions has become to our system of education. Even during “normal times”, the priorities of teacher unions have often clashed with those of parents, students and taxpayers. For example, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) has long argued that student proficiency should be excluded entirely from the state’s already weak teacher evaluation process. And, of course, unions have long been the most militant opposition to educational choice programs that allow families the freedom to leave traditional public schools for learning environments better suited to their unique needs.
However, the last year of “distance learning” has clarified the degree to which the priorities of teacher unions contrast starkly with those of struggling families. After a year of school closures, it is painfully obvious there is a significant human cost to keeping classrooms closed—harm that goes beyond mere gaps in educational achievement. Mental illnesses, depression and even suicide have increased among our youngest generations as the usual social interaction of in-person learning has been reduced to mere Zoom meetings.
Worse still, we aren’t being asked to endure these human costs as part of a serious effort to mitigate the risks associated with a pandemic. In fact, the data is becoming increasingly clear that classroom environments do not pose more significant risk of coronavirus transmission than grocery stores, restaurants or the general community.
Officials from the CDC have explained there is “little evidence that [in-person] schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” President Joe Biden’s own CDC director agreed, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci—the expert so many governors and school administrators looked to in the early days of the pandemic—has noted that children are among the least “at-risk” individuals for contracting or even spreading the novel coronavirus.
We also have real world examples. School districts with politically weak unions have been open safely for months—not to mention the untold numbers of private schools that have been opened most, if not all, of the 2020-2021 school year—with no notable uptick in transmission rates for teachers or students.
And yet, unions continue to defy the science—sacrificing the wellbeing of students for continued political power during difficult and uncertain times. In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, the district’s plan to “reopen” is far from what parents or students would consider a return to “normal.” While students can return to the school two days a week, they won’t be receiving anything resembling “in-person” instruction. Instead, their teachers will continue to teach remotely, while their students access the curriculum via their own private laptops from a teacherless classroom.
Other districts have gone so far as to reject even partial reopenings, suggesting instead that schools stay fully remote into the fall or beyond. Such opposition to getting kids (and teachers) back in the classroom has little to do with science, and virtually everything to do with unions using the closures to advance their political agendas. In Los Angeles, for example, the union initially demanded that officials impose a moratorium on charter schools before returning to the classroom—as if parents’ ability to send their child to a non-union charter school was in any way related to getting public school kids safely back onto campus.
Unfortunately, as a result of the monopoly control unions enjoy over public education, most families find themselves held hostage to the political whims of these powerful government special interests.
When unions advance their agenda in the private sector, they negotiate with business owners and shareholders over the workers’ share of profits. The public sector, however, has neither owners nor profits. So, instead, public sector unions must advance their cause by withholding critical public services from the very citizens government was designed to serve—which, importantly, was the precise reason even pro-union stalwarts, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, were opposed to public-sector unionization in the first half of the 20th Century.
Unfortunately, FDR’s skepticism of public-sector unionization eventually fell out of favor in American political mainstream. And now, an entire generation of struggling students are paying the price.
Michael Schaus is Communications Director at Nevada Policy Research Institute