Editor’s note: This commentary is by Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
Roughly four months ago, when politicians and bureaucrats across nearly the entire country shuttered K-12 public schools as part of local, state and federal efforts to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, few if any public officials suggested that schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year. But that’s what happened, with very few exceptions.
As summer neared, America’s parents of the roughly 50 million children who attend a K-12 school were overwhelmingly ready to have them return to attending school, at least part-time, come fall, according to a scientific survey conducted in late May and early June by Gallup.
The survey found that an overwhelming 93% of K-12 parents want their kids to attend in-person classes in the fall, compared to just 7% who prefer full-time distance learning. Fifty-six percent of all the parents surveyed prefer full-time in-person school for their children, while 37% prefer a mix of in-person and distance learning.
The near-unanimous wishes of parents seem completely reasonable, given that the risk to schoolchildren of falling seriously ill from COVID-19 is by all accounts extremely low and, according to leading British epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse, there is so far not a single recorded case of a teacher catching the coronavirus from a pupil anywhere in the world.
Of course, as a consequence of more than 30 state monopoly-bargaining laws that grant a handful of teacher union bosses effective veto power over how schools serving the vast majority of K-12 students nationwide are managed, what parents and schoolchildren want may not have much influence over what they get.
As the 2020-2021 school year approaches, National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT/AFL-CIO) union officials in state after state and school district after school district are making it clear they will do everything in their ample power to keep school buildings from reopening as previously scheduled. Meanwhile, Big Labor politicians are contorting themselves in their efforts to do NEA and AFT bosses’ bidding.
For example, on July 17, Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom bowed to the demands of Golden State teacher union bosses and essentially ordered schools across most of California to keep their doors closed for the entire fall semester.
In states whose elected officials have refused to do teacher union bosses’ bidding, they are trying to get Big Labor-“friendly” judges to keep schools closed. The most notorious case is Right to Work Florida, where on July 21 top bosses of the NEA statewide affiliate filed a lawsuit to block the governor and state elected officials from the supposedly “reckless and unsafe” reopening of schools for in-person classes.
Though schools are now reopening around the world and safely reopened last spring in multiple European countries, including some that were harder hit by COVID-19 than the U.S., top teacher union bosses here insist this won’t happen until an array of their political demands are met.
An official statement from the AFT union hierarchy in June insists that the national average taxpayer-funded expenditures of roughly $13,600 per full-time pupil must rise by another $2,300 in response to COVID-19 for schools to reopen — eventually. If union kingpins don’t get what they want, “school buildings will stay shuttered” permanently.
The brazen power grab now being executed by the top bosses of the NEA and the AFT unions and their subsidiaries, in which school openings are being conditioned on the institution of socialized medicine and a moratorium on (generally union-free) charter schools as well as massive government spending and tax increases, shows more vividly than ever before why they should never have been granted monopoly-bargaining power over educators in the first place.
To defend the interests of children who rely on government schools for their education and taxpayers who finance these schools, elected officials in states whose laws currently mandate “exclusive” union bargaining over teachers’ pay, benefits, and work rules must fight to roll those laws back as soon as possible.