This commentary is by Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
Seven months ago, union bosses like American Federation of Teachers (AFT/AFL-CIO) chief Randi Weingarten and National Education Association bigwig Becky Pringle exulted as Congress rubber-stamped and President Joe Biden approved a $200 billion payout to overwhelmingly unionized government schools.
The principal public pretext for this extraordinary transfer of money from federal taxpayers to state and local education bureaucracies was that the funds were needed in the wake of COVID-19 to ensure that schools could reopen safely. The money was also supposed to help provide kids with opportunities to catch up after losing ground while schools were shuttered.
But the reality is that the bulk of the $200 billion windfall isn’t going into putatively necessary safety measures like upgrades in older buildings’ ventilation systems. Nor is it going into learning-enrichment programs.
An Aug. 20 analysis by the nonpartisan education news service K-12 Dive showed that state after state and school district after school district are actually using COVID-19-“relief” money to hire additional employees and give nonmerit-based bonuses and pay increases to current employees.
Voluminous research by leading education scholars such as Dr. Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University shows that expanding K-12 payrolls is not an effective way of improving student achievement. But such payroll expansions clearly do put more dues revenue in the pockets of NEA and AFT union officials.
Now is an especially bizarre time for government-run K-12 schools to be hiring.
Official federal data indicate nationwide primary and secondary government school enrollment fell by 3% during the 2020-21 academic year, even as homeschooling reportedly tripled. And early reports of 2021-22 enrollment numbers in large districts in government union-dominated states like California, Illinois, and New York indicate even fewer kids will attend schools raking in COVID-19 relief money this year than last year.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) may the most outrageous example of how federal taxpayers’ $200 billion bailout of government education is being abused. With a pension shortfall of $22.8 billion, according to Moody’s, CPS officials were reportedly planning in mid-August to hire an additional 2,000 part-time and full-time employees this academic year. Yet CPS officials admitted at the time that the school district’s enrollment could soon plummet by another 100,000 students, or 29% of the district’s total.
There is no doubt that teacher union bosses scored a $200 billion victory over taxpayers with the adoption of the so-called “American Rescue Plan” in March.
It has been known since early on in the pandemic that, even though COVID-19 is dangerous for many elderly Americans and other vulnerable people, it poses substantially less risk of serious harm to children than does the seasonal flu. It has also long been known that children are not COVID-19 “superspreaders.”
But union bosses like Randi Weingarten and Becky Pringle have successfully exploited COVID-19 fears to line their own pockets. The good news is that teacher union bigwigs could ultimately lose more than they gained from this stunt — if parents and other taxpayers in state after state respond by fighting tenaciously and effectively for revocation of government union bosses’ monopoly-bargaining privileges.
Special-interest laws now on the books in more than 30 states hand union bosses “exclusive” powers to codetermine with school boards educators’ pay, benefits, and work rules. These privileges and the political clout they spawn are the key reasons why Ms. Weingarten, Ms. Pringle, and their cohorts were able to pull of this year one of the biggest shakedowns ever of American taxpayers.
But government-sector monopoly bargaining doesn’t inevitably become permanent once it is instituted. Just this year, Arkansas citizens, with the National Right to Work Committee’s support, successfully pushed for passage of a law that bars Big Labor from seizing monopoly-bargaing control over teachers and many other public servants.
And thanks in part to mounting public outrage over cynical COVID-19 fearmongering perpetrated by teacher union bosses, other states may soon follow in Arkansas’ footsteps.
Greer is senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.