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How Teacher Unions Failed Students during the Pandemic

Powerful unions such have represented teachers’ interests for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clearer than ever the total dissonance between what teachers’ unions want and what’s best for students. During the pandemic, unions forced many schools to stay closed, ignored students’ needs, and severely disrupted learning.

Motivated by the pandemic’s negative effects on K–12 education, some families are becoming more engaged in their local schools. In February, three school board members from the San Francisco Unified School District were recalled because families were dissatisfied with the district’s response to the pandemic. Most of the city’s campuses were completely closed for a staggering eighteen months and didn’t reopen for in-person learning until August 2021.

However, parents pushing for more reforms will soon find themselves locking horns with some political heavyweights: teachers’ unions.

Powerful national unions such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have represented teachers’ interests for decades. These unions have state and local affiliates across the nation that secure teachers’ influence in state legislatures and school boards.

Students, on the other hand, are represented by their parents. Parents obviously care deeply about their kids’ education, but they often don’t have sufficient time or the requisite background to effectively reform the public education system. This means that teachers’ unions typically have the upper hand in schools. Unions are armed with full-time staff to protect their members’ jobs and interests. Meanwhile, parents are often encumbered by various responsibilities like work and caretaking, and just don’t have the resources to effectively campaign against union interests.

Many individual public school teachers, of course, entered the profession for admirable reasons and truly want to help students. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made clearer than ever the total dissonance between what teachers’ unions want and what’s best for students.

 

Unions and Closures

Teachers’ unions’ lobbying efforts kept many public schools closed even as other private schools and workplaces reopened during the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years.

Even as the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind us, many school districts are still relying on temporary classroom closures. The New York Times found that, in January of this year, a majority of America’s students missed three school days, and 14 percent of students missed nine or more days of in-person instruction.

As many teachers pushed for extended remote learning, parents have scrambled to find childcare as their offices reopen. The 74, a nonpartisan education news website, found that less affluent families who couldn’t afford childcare were especially burdened.

There have also been staggering reports of extensive learning loss, no doubt worsened by closures. Student outcomes in math and reading declined during the pandemic. Unfortunately, low-income students were most adversely affected. Despite obvious negative effects of remote learning on students, many teachers’ unions have opposed in-person learning for extended periods over the last two years.

In one particularly audacious and impudent instance, the Los Angeles Public School Union leveraged school reopenings for non-pandemic and partisan goals, such as charter school moratoriums, defunding the police, and rent abatement.

Even after Congress provided more than $204 billion in new federal funds to K–12 public education, many major school districts were slow to fully reopen. The pandemic revealed the distinct advantage public school teachers unions have at the bargaining table.

 

How Teachers’ Unions Gained Power

The sheer size of teachers’ unions is staggering. The NEA and AFT boast 3 million and 1.6 million members respectively, accounting for one in four union members nationwide. Unlike private sector unions, which negotiate with autonomous companies, teachers’ unions enjoy a significant advantage at the bargaining table: they work with public officials and can influence their elections. Teachers’ unions of course know this and have become experts at shaping elections.

The unions have huge buying power. During the 2019–20 election cycle, the NEA and AFT donated $6.9 million to political candidates. In addition to this sum, they directed most of their political funds ($33.7 million) to their respective super PACs and other outside groups.

Yet real union clout arises at the local level. Teachers’ unions are especially active in school board elections throughout the nation’s 14,000 school districts. “While the local political boss cannot put their cronies in power, the local teachers’ union can,” EdChoice’s Mike McShane noted last year.

Teachers’ unions don’t even try to hide their playbook. For example, the Michigan Education Association published a pamphlet titled “Electing Your Own Employer: It’s as Easy as 1, 2, 3.” This forty-page manual instructs union members on how to find union-friendly school board candidates. It provides twenty-two detailed questions to ask candidates, strategies for organizing and running campaigns, best practices for canvassing and phone banks, and volunteer recruitment. Obviously, the endgame is to shape school boards.

Unfortunately, these strategies are extremely effective. When turnout is low, as it is in school board elections, there’s a lot of room for special interests to maneuver the polls. According to the National School Board Association, only 5 or 10 percent of eligible voters participate in school board elections. In Los Angeles, the second largest school district nationwide, only 8.7 percent of voters participated in the 2019 school board election. Teachers’ unions are likely to have an outsized impact, especially when elections are held in off-cycle years, which is the norm in most states.

Pandemic Opportunism

During the pandemic, teachers’ unions opportunistically took their political leverage to new levels. Just six weeks after the first schools closed in spring 2020, the AFT demanded (in addition to masks, personal protective gear, and other health precautions) that Congress provide $750 billion in new federal funds for state and local education spending. The union wanted to suspend teacher evaluations, reduce class sizes, get funding for new non-teaching staff, and eliminate student evaluations during the pandemic. In other words: more money and no accountability. Understandably, Congress balked at these demands; teachers’ unions, however, refused to budge.

It’s important to note that while national unions have prestige, influence, and bargaining power, they don’t control local affiliates. At the end of the day, local unions are the ones enforcing school closures. An October 2020 report by education researchers Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger found that districts with collective bargaining were 40 percent more likely to stay in remote learning.

Last year, education researcher Mike Antonucci looked at unions in seven of the nation’s eleven largest school districts. Antonucci found that, “In no instance did teacher unions advocate for schools to reopen with in-person classroom instruction. On the contrary, they were classroom instruction’s primary opponents during the pandemic.” In fact, none of these districts fully reopened all of their schools until the fall of 2021.

Many local unions stalled school reopenings to squeeze out additional funding or benefits from districts. For example, New York City’s Unified Federation of Teachers (UFT) advocated smaller class sizes and additional non-teaching personnel, even though the city’s enrollment actually dropped by 4.5 percent since 2019. This proposed staffing surge would cost the district $1 billion in new non-teaching staff and $150 million annually for new teachers. (Not to mention UFT membership would grow by 9 percent). Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami-Dade unions also pushed for more teachers despite lower student enrollment.

Some teachers were so opposed to in-person schooling that they took to striking. Fairfax County Public Schools teachers held a “sick out” after the district announced a return to in-person learning in fall 2020, which meant only a small percentage of students returned to school in-person. After local officials complied with union demands to prioritize public school teachers for vaccination, the union moved the goalposts. “We think all students need to be vaccinated before in-person instruction resumes full time,” Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams said. In Chicago this year, well after vaccines and boosters were widely available, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for five business days, forcing 340,000 children to remain at home.

 

The Cost of Special Interests

School closures left an indelible mark on many students. In December of 2021, the NWEA reported that student achievement declined by 9 to 11 percentile points and 3 to 7 percentile points in math and reading respectively. Dan Goldhaber, Thomas Kane, and Andrew McEachin estimated how, if unremedied, the decline in student achievement could represent a “$43,800 loss in expected lifetime earnings” for each student. “Spread across the 50 million [K–12] public school students . . . that would be over $2 trillion—about 10 times more than the $200 billion Congress set aside last year to help schools respond to the pandemic,” they wrote. Students from high-poverty schools, especially those already underperforming, were most affected by pandemic-induced learning loss. High school degree attainment, a key part of the success sequence, also dropped in at least 20 states.

At the same time, enrollment in public schools declined by nearly 3 million students from 2019 to 2020, and by 1.5 million students during the 2020–21 school year. Many of these students probably left public education options in favor of homeschooling or private education, or delayed entering kindergarten. But, quite disturbingly, many vulnerable students simply disappeared. “Sometimes [school staff] found students who were busy providing childcare for young siblings; others were working low-wage jobs to help support their families financially during the pandemic. It also was common to find kids of all ages who lacked adequate internet access or academic support at home. Or, they just failed to find the kids at all,” reported Laura Coffey in Today. One fall 2020 survey indicated that 420,000 homeless students went missing from public schools. If schools had remained open, surely schools wouldn’t have lost so many students.

Incredibly, despite unions’ blatant opportunism and lack of regard for students, many parents remained ambivalent toward the unions. National polling from Education Next showed that:

A large share of parents and the public say unions neither hindered nor helped the reopening of local schools. . . . Both parents and the general public see teachers unions nationwide as complicating the task of reopening schools, but this has not noticeably altered views on how teachers unions influence school quality.

Somehow, even with the bad press and palpable harm to students, parents continue to see teachers’ unions as relatively benign.

Competing Interests

But unions’ strong-arming of school systems has had some unexpectedly good side effects. Noticing the sorry state of public schools, twenty-two states countered unions by expanding, improving, or starting new school choice programs in 2021. These increased competition with district-run public schools, allowing more families to find alternative schooling. Meanwhile, homeschooling increased and private schools experienced an enrollment boom.

Parents, dissatisfied with teacher union dominance, took matters into their own hands. In January 2020, they launched the National Parents Union (NPU), an organization dedicated to representing the interests of parents and students in education. NPU works to stop districts from treating parents like children, instead of as their most important stakeholders. Since 2020, NPU has gained 15 million members and has actively supported education endeavors that elevate parental choice. NPU distributed 37 grants, each worth up to $25,000, to help families form microschools and learning pods during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, teachers’ unions forced many schools to stay closed, ignored students’ needs, and severely disrupted learning, especially for the most vulnerable families. Policymakers can combat this influence by letting parents vote with their feet and pursue other education options. After all, the pandemic made it clearer than ever that parents—not teachers’ unions—are the ones who will do what’s best for kids.

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