From Court Packing to Climate Change, Teachers' Unions Push Progressive Priorities as Test Scores Plummet

NEA, AFT used summer gatherings to increase 'political power,' critics argue

Randi Weingarten (Getty Images)
September 15, 2023

As student achievement scores hit historic lows this summer, the nation's largest teachers' unions prepared for the upcoming school year by lecturing members on court packing, climate change, and other liberal policy priorities.

During its July national conference, the National Education Association unveiled a slew of "new business items," which included calls for President Joe Biden to "expand the Supreme Court to restore American democracy" and extend "asylum to all" illegal migrants. Weeks later, the American Federation of Teachers held its own summer gathering, which saw union leaders attend training sessions centered on "integrating climate change into your teaching" and "affirming LGBTQIA+ identities in and out of the classroom." NEA president Becky Pringle, meanwhile, used her conference keynote speech to "call out every politician and every pundit who refuses to address gun violence" and argue that America is structurally inequitable.

The unions' summer focus on left-wing politics came just weeks after new National Assessment of Educational Progress reports showed abysmal student achievement scores. Proficiency in history for eighth graders fell to an all-time low, the reports showed, while reading and math scores for 13-year-olds fell to levels not seen in decades. Still, in the buildup to the 2023 school year, NEA and AFT leaders spent much of their time discussing how to insert liberal priorities into classrooms. For parental rights advocates, the decision proves that top teachers' unions are failing America's kids.

"We have seen teachers' unions fail to advance opportunities in education in favor of increased political power and influence for the Democratic Party," a spokesman for the Institute for Educational Reform told the Washington Free Beacon. "Kids lose out the most when you see that their education is the lowest priority on the agenda."

Neither the NEA nor the AFT returned requests for comment.

In addition to court packing and citizenship for illegal immigrants, the NEA's July "business items" included a call for teachers to bring awareness to the plight of the Palestinian people. "Many educators are not even aware that Palestine exists," the document said, according to a copy obtained by RealClearEducation. A similar set of NEA policy statements, which the union developed for its July convention, reaffirmed the union's "strong support for the use of affirmative action in employment."

One month before the convention, meanwhile, the union in June released a gender identity "toolkit" that instructs teachers on how to "get out of the habit of assuming pronouns" and argues that the "use of incorrect pronouns" is "unsafe" for "gender diverse people." It also emphasizes an "intersectional focus on racial justice" as part of a union effort to practice "anti-racism."

AFT president Randi Weingarten also spent much of her summer wading into liberal political issues. The union head in July called for a "general strike" in Israel after the nation's parliament passed a judicial reform bill, pledging that the union would "do everything in our power to stand with" the bill's critics.

When Weingarten was discussing learning loss in schools, she largely worked to defend her role in prompting it—during April congressional testimony, Weingarten portrayed herself as a staunch supporter of school reopenings, saying she "spent every day from February on trying to get schools open." Weingarten in 2020 called the push to reopen schools "reckless," "callous," and "cruel." Studies have since shown that remote learning caused academic achievement to suffer.

"If there is anything we learned from the disastrous era of school closures, it is that teachers' unions are far more concerned with their own political agendas and power than they are about the math skills and reading proficiency of America's students," Parents Defending Education director of federal affairs Michele Exner told the Free Beacon.

The NEA and AFT's left-wing advocacy has in many cases trickled down to local chapters.

The Portland Association of Teachers, which is affiliated with the NEA, is threatening to strike if its district declines to provide subsidized housing for poor families and lobby for expanded rent control, among other so-called common good measures. In December, the Oakland Education Association, another NEA affiliate, submitted a proposal that called for reparations for black students, an expanded "environmental justice curriculum," and a "dramatic reduction" in testing. The union argued that the proposal would help it achieve "truly joyful, safe, and racially just schools where everyone thrives and equity is centered in all decision-making."