This commentary is by Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
In March 2020, little more than three years ago, state and local politicians across America halted in-person classes for K-12 government schools across America with the purported aim of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. When the school shutdowns began, few ordinary citizens had any idea how long they would last. It ultimately turned out that many school districts would remain closed until well into 2021. It’s been estimated that roughly half of America’s public schoolchildren lost a year or more of full-time, face-to-face instruction in the classroom.
Not coincidentally, both parents’ willingness to make huge financial and other sacrifices to get their kids out of the government education system and public apprehensions about the viability of public schools as institutions have soared since early 2020.
Over the course of the first two years of the pandemic, nationwide enrollment in K-12 public schools plummeted by roughly 1.2 million. The enrollment decline was typically far more severe in states where government school employees are overwhelmingly unionized and union bosses’ monopoly-bargaining power over how teachers are compensated and managed is most extensive. For example, 27.1% of the entire enrollment drop occurred in just two states, forced-unionism California and New York, that were home to only 17.7% of the nation’s school-aged population (that is, 5-17 year olds) in 2020. Meanwhile, a fall 2022 Gallup poll recently cited by Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn found that nationwide public satisfaction with government schools “had dropped to 42%, a 20-year low.”
As parental and public confidence in Big Labor-dominated government schools falls, Randi Weingarten, the camera-hogging president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT/AFL-CIO) union, epitomizes the problem for many concerned citizens. In the words of former Congressman and Trump Cabinet member Mike Pompeo, a particularly harsh critic: “It’s not just about Ms. Weingarten, but she has become the most visible face of the destruction of American education.”
Many Americans understandably blame union bosses like Weingarten for the fact that most American school districts in the jurisdictions where Big Labor is most powerful remained shuttered long after it had become apparent both that they could operate safely at minimal if any additional cost and that school children were suffering grave educational and psychological harm as a consequence of the lockdowns.
But Weingarten pleads not guilty. Brushing aside countless well-document examples of her viciously attacking supporters of reopening schools in 2020 and 2021, such as her July 2020 denunciation of then-U.S. Education Sec. Betsy DeVos’s pro-in person instruction stance as “reckless,” “callous,” and “cruel,” the AFT czar insists she was never against reopening per se. At an April 26 congressional hearing on the role top union bosses played in perpetuating school shutdowns, she repeated again and again that she had always wanted schools to reopen, as long as it could be done “safely.”
This attempt at self-exoneration is laughable. Just for starters, Weingarten’s recent testimony ignored the fact that, in July 2021, nearly a year after school districts in Right to Work Florida had reopened, and generally remained open, while “avoid[ing] major outbreaks of COVID-19 and maintain[ing] case rates lower than those in the wider community,” she claimed hysterically, and against all evidence, that “millions of Floridians” were “going to die” because the state’s elected officials had refused to follow Big Labor orders to keep schools closed.
This prediction was so absurd that Weingarten subsequently decided she had no choice but to apologize for her “hyperbole.” But she continues to invent facts to justify her COVID-19 record.
For example, in her late April congressional testimony, Weingarten repeatedly cited a January 2021 study co-authored by epidemiologist Tracy Høeg to justify the AFT hierarchy’s insistence that federal taxpayers had to fork over vast sums of money, putatively for costly new school ventilation systems and other mitigations, before safe reopenings could happen. But as Høeg, the study’s lead author, publicly pointed out within hours after the hearing’s conclusion, it actually showed rates of COVID-19 transmission were low in schools regardless of whether their ventilation systems were old or new.
In the era of COVID-19 and its aftermath, the fork-tongued Weingarten has become the personification of why state laws handing K-12 union bosses monopoly-bargaining power over the compensation and working conditions of public school employees, now on the books in well over 30 states, never should have been enacted and ought now to be repealed.