Public schools

Teachers Unions Extracting Final Payouts Before Schools Reopen

L.A. teachers win $500 childcare concession, though New York union still holding firm on anti-scientific 2-case rule.


On Sunday, as FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver pointed out, the United States saw its lowest number of reported COVID-19 deaths—222—since March 23, 2020. On Monday, the city of Los Angeles, whose public schools have not been open for 13 months, announced that it was caving to the local teachers union demand for an extra $500-per-child monthly stipend for all district employees with offspring under six years old.

"We have done all we can to take care of our employees, from Hero Pay and extended medical benefits to Covid tests and vaccinations," L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) superintendent Austin Beutner said in a statement that reads like a hostage note. "The support for childcare is another step we're taking to help our employees so they can keep doing all they can to serve the needs of students and their families."

Contra Beutner, neither the district nor its teachers have been "doing all they can to serve the needs of students and their families," because L.A.'s schools have remained stubbornly closed, even as most of the rest of the country reopens in the face of 10 months' worth of evidence that school-type settings are disproportionately unlikely to be incubators of the novel coronavirus. Making matters more infuriating to public school parents is the fact that Southern California has one of the most temperate and dry climates in the country, meaning it is easier there than almost anywhere else to open windows and throw up outdoor tents year-round.

As has been true throughout the pandemic, public school closures have had little to do with the amount of community infection, and much to do with teachers union potency and local political tilt toward the Democratic Party. As the left-leaning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it in February, "The blunt fact is that it is Democrats—including those who run the West Coast, from California through Oregon to Washington State—who have presided over one of the worst blows to the education of disadvantaged Americans in history. The result: more dropouts, less literacy and numeracy, widening race gaps, and long-term harm to some of our most marginalized youth."

But one key reason why unions keep pressing for every last-minute advantage—even after getting vaccine priority, testing capability, and the largest federal money transfer to locally managed schools in U.S. history, is that they can. At least in polities controlled by the Democratic Party, which receives around $19 of every $20 in teachers union political donations.

Take New York. On March 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its guidelines about social-distancing within schools from six feet to three feet, thus belatedly bringing U.S. recommendations in line with that of the scientific community and rest of the world. Yet when asked this Monday about when the Empire State would finally revise its guidelines in response, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a remarkable admission.

"It's not as simple as you suggest," Cuomo told reporters. "Some superintendents like it; many superintendents don't like it. Some parents like it; many parents don't like it. Some teachers like it; many teachers don't like it. The reason it is taking time is because it is very controversial."

This, from the governor who has uttered the phrase "follow the science" on television more than anyone this side of Bill Nye, is a useful reminder that he, like far too many other elected officials and even appointed scientific bureaucrats, in fact does not, instead letting "stakeholders" (i.e., entities that hold political power) bend science to fit their self-interest.

New York City, which has wrongly been held up as a national model for school reopening by both Mayor Bill de Blasio and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, remains one of the most closed (i.e., "hybrid") districts of all those that are not 100 percent remote. That's due both to the still-extant six-foot rule, which effectively cuts class sizes in half, and also the astonishingly anti-scientific "two-case rule" mandating an automatic 10-day closure whenever a school of any size reports two concurrent positive tests among the entire pool of students, teachers, and staff.

On Monday, a full two months after first saying that he would review the uncertainty-generating closure-trigger, De Blasio announced that he is finally going to change the two-case rule…"in the coming days." With details to be named later, after negotiations with the powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Which promptly shot de Blasio's announcement out of the water.

"A proclamation is not a plan. The city can't change the two-case rule without Albany's approval," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. (That claim, typical of New York's astoundingly dysfunctional political structure, was quickly denied by state authorities.) Mulgrew continued: "We have been talking to our medical experts, and will continue to discuss these issues with the city."

To which reopening activists responded with what has been a common refrain, if not quite among journalists who cover the issue: Which experts, precisely?

"We have several dozen doctors on the record who say the two-case rule should be abandoned," activist Daniela Jampel told the New York Post. "The UFT keeps saying their independent experts tell them they should keep it. They don't name them. Why? I think they need to. Otherwise our kids' education is being held hostage."

The two-case rule, the six-foot rule, the ongoing remote-teaching opt-out even for healthy young teachers who've had plenty of time to be vaccinated—these are all the product of teachers union muscle. And they have contributed to America having less in-person instruction over the past year than almost any other industrialized country, causing massive learning loss (particularly among poor and minority students), emotional isolation, and labor force dropouts by women.

All of which add to the brazenness of union leaders refusing to say whether they'll support full reopening even by the next school year in September, by which time most everybody in the United States over the age of 12 will be vaccinated.

"I've seen inequalities all my life, and the last thing we can afford to do at the end of a pandemic that has already disproportionately impacted our Black and Brown and Indigenous communities, the last thing we need to do is to say we did not take the time to do studies in their environments, in their schools," National Education Association President Becky Pringle told The Washington Post last week. "We still have lots of questions."

Parents have lots of questions too, like How much is real estate in Florida?, and Why are we paying so much tax money for schools we can't use?

AFT President Randi Weingarten continues trying to portray herself as the voice of science and reason, definitely in favor of reopening just worried about a mitigation or two. But the mask is starting to slip, and journalists are starting to tally the receipts. Pressed last week by New Yorker interrogator Isaac Chotiner on her hostility toward the three-foot rule, Weingarten was even more unconvincing than usual.

"I think that, if you look at what the A.F.T. has done, we've tried to call balls and strikes this whole time," she said. "But the issue, in terms of three feet versus six feet, is we thought that, for the places that were tough to reopen, and places that had just reopened, that you couldn't be so certain that six feet was absolutely key in February, and then so certain in March that it wasn't key."

Uh-huh. At least Weingarten didn't try to portray union-criticism as an artifact of privilege, as she did in an interview last month with The Jerusalem Post:

I think some people are very skeptical of the power that they perceive teachers unions to have. They look at, for example, the ongoing struggles in Los Angeles, where they see this big dollar figure of aid being given for school reopening and are baffled by the perceived resistance of teachers to going back to work.

I have a very pointed response here for Jews making this argument.

American Jews are now part of the ownership class. Jews were immigrants from somewhere else. And they needed the right to have public education. And they needed power to have enough income and wealth for their families that they could put their kids through college and their kids could do better than they have done. Both economic opportunity through the labor movement and an educational opportunity through public education were key for Jews to go from the working class to the ownership class.

What I hear when I hear that question is that those who are in the ownership class now want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it. Am I saying that everything we do is right? No. Are people in Los Angeles fearful? Yes.

One in three people have had COVID in L.A. The disease has significantly hurt Black and brown communities, many of whom are in the leadership of UTLA. You have to meet fear with facts, just like you have to do about vaccine hesitancy. And that's what's happening right now, just like it's happening all across the country. […]

I wish we had 1/100th of the power the right wing attributes to us. We'd do a heck of a lot better job in actually educating our kids and focusing on excellence and equity.

I hear that. So you see it as a privileged argument?

Oh my God, it's a totally privileged argument. And I'm not saying that everything we do is right. It isn't. But not everything bankers do is right. And not everything lawyers do is right. It's just a matter of workers having to have some degree of power and some degree of voice.

Teachers are up against 40 years of the Chamber of Commerce and many other groups actually fighting to erode workers' rights. Teachers are one of the few groups that are still organized.

When—not if—teachers unions come down from the zenith of power they have flexed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the single biggest culprit will not be the right wing, or the Chamber of Commerce, or even disgruntled libertarian journalists. It will be the teachers unions themselves.