For America's kids and parents, the reopening of schools in coming weeks is a source of fear and frustration. For teachers' unions, always claiming to "put the kids first," it's another opportunity for politicking.
On Tuesday evening, just before a slated speech by presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten announced that the national union would back strikes by local members objecting to inadequate health and safety standards. That threat marks progress insofar as a strike would see teachers forgo pay if they abstain from work, the same choice facing many other Americans.
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We do not begrudge teachers the right to negotiate a safe work environment. But teachers' unions like the AFT have gone beyond calling for increased safety measures which, even if adopted, would not satisfy their demands for a zero-risk environment. The Durham Association of Educators has demanded Medicare for All and "direct income support regardless of immigration status" before their members go back to work. United Teachers Los Angeles also wants Medicare for All, the defunding of the LAPD, and a nationwide wealth tax before Angelino teachers return to the classroom.
Next week, several major unions will participate in a mass protest. Their goal? Those ostensibly concerned about safety in schools will demand the removal of public safety officers from their hallways.
These demands have nothing to do with the coronavirus or even education more broadly. They have everything to do with the unions' cozy relationship with the Democratic Party's activist wing. The AFT routinely donates millions of dollars—98 percent of its political spending—to Democrats, the same party that has repeatedly used the coronavirus as negotiating leverage in Congress.
Given their political attitude, it's little surprise that, according to a Department of Education spokesman, the unions are more focused on striking than on coming to the table to determine how to reopen schools safely.
The rush to play politics puts the unions at odds with the millions of essential workers who have continued to do their part, including the thousands of doctors working around the clock to save lives. America's physicians have never threatened to go on strike, perhaps because they're not accustomed to the bare-knuckle tactics Weingarten and her allies deploy.
Frontline doctors don't have the luxury of working remotely, either, while teachers imagine they do. Why is it then, as the New York Times reports, that teachers' unions oppose both going back to work and teaching online?
Parents are trapped: Polling shows that many fear their child being infected, but also the developmental setbacks and lost income that would come with another year of remote learning—fears disproportionately reported by minority and poor or middle-class parents. According to CDC director Robert Redfield, social isolation and deprivation might be killing even more of our high schoolers through drugs and suicide than the coronavirus has.
Just nine months ago Pete Buttigieg stood on a debate stage in Houston and, to wild applause, declared that the United States needs to "respect teachers the way we do soldiers and pay them more like the way we do doctors" if we want "the results we expect."
But when the virus came, our soldiers didn’t abandon the country, and our doctors didn’t abandon the sick. If we want to get the results we expect, parents will need to break the unions.