Editor’s note: This commentary is by Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
Why did public schools remain mostly locked down for most of the 2020-21 academic year, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 poses less risk to schoolchildren than the seasonal flu and that schools are not vectors of COVID-19 transmission?
The single most important reason is the enormous monopoly power and political clout of teacher union bosses. And teacher union bosses grow their treasuries and political muscle through the privileges bestowed upon them by Big Labor-allied elected officials in more than 30 states.
By the summer of 2020, medical scientists across the world had already reached a consensus that schools in all kinds of communities, including communities with high numbers of active COVID-19 infections, could reopen safely. Nevertheless, teacher union bosses across the nation demanded that schools remain closed. And in states where government union chiefs wield a lot of clout, they overwhelmingly got their way.
The loss of in-person learning for more than a year in many cases has hurt millions of schoolchildren academically.
For example, in Maryland, the spring 2020 school closures “contributed to unusually steep declines in fall 2020” state standardized test scores, according to a commentary by medical researcher Margery Smelkinson published in the Baltimore Sun on May 7. The decline in student achievement was especially severe in math. By the winter, “scores tanked further, with the youngest learners performing the worst.”
The toll on children’s physical and mental health has been even steeper. School closures have contributed to obesity and eating disorders, according to the Stanford Children’s Health Network.
Moreover, as of late this winter, emergency department (ED) visits for “suspected suicide attempts” were roughly 51% higher among adolescent girls (aged 12-17) nationwide than they had been in 2019, reports the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Among adolescent boys, suicide-related ED visits were up by roughly 4% over 2019.
Even though the CDC is now controlled by Biden appointees who early this year actively colluded with top union bosses to keep schools closed, the CDC’s June 11 report admitted that “lack of connectedness to schools, teachers and peers” could be linked to soaring adolescent suicide attempts.
Powerful teacher union bosses clearly saw shuttered schools as an opportunity to extract billions and billions of additional dollars from hard-pressed taxpayers for the unionized government schools that they largely control. The shakedown scheme by American Federation of Teachers union President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association union President Becky Pringle, and their cohorts succeeded to an extent they never could have imagined pre-COVID-19.
On March 11, President Joe Biden signed into law a monstrous $1.9 trillion spending bill that is largely a Big Labor bailout. And roughly $200 billion of that went to education bureaucracies that are typically dominated by union dons.
After the gargantuan COVID-19 “relief” package became law, Ms. Weingarten’s and Ms. Pringle’s opposition to school reopenings began to ease.
And now they are eager for everyone to forget how, from the spring of 2020 until well into 2021, they were holding children’s education and physical and mental well-being hostage to their demands for more money and power.
But if American parents and other taxpayers refuse to forget, the $200 billion bailout they secured from Joe Biden and his allies in Congress may prove to be a pyrrhic victory for teacher union kingpins.
Union bosses must be held accountable for what they’ve done. And by far the best way citizens can hold them accountable is to revoke the statutory monopoly-bargaining power they wield over school employees’ pay, benefits, and work rules in the vast majority of states.
As long as teacher and other government union bosses’ monopoly privileges remain in place, more fiascos like what we’ve seen in American education since the spring of 2020 are inevitable.