How the Teachers Union Broke Public Education

Alex Gutentag:

What makes the NEA’s bargaining approach so remarkable is the fact that this union and its counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have recently inflicted profound racial and social injustice on the country’s school children in the form of extended school closures.

As an Oakland public school teacher, I was a staunch supporter of the teachers union and was a union representative at my school for three years. In 2020, however, I began to disagree with the union when it prevented me from returning to my classroom long after studies proved that school reopening was safe, even without COVID-19 mitigation measures. In my experience, the union’s actions were not motivated by sincere fears, but rather by a desire to virtue-signal and maintain comfortable work-from-home conditions.

Although union bosses like Randi Weingarten continue to obfuscate their role in school closures, the historical record is clear: The union repeatedly pushed to keep schools closed, and areas with greater union influence kept schools closed longer. Politicians, public health officials, and the media certainly had a hand in this fiasco, but the union egged on dramatic news stories, framed school reopening as a partisan issue, and directly interfered in CDC recommendations. Teachers saw firsthand that virtual learning was a farce and that children were suffering. While there may be plenty of blame to go around, teachers’ abandonment of their own students was a special kind of betrayal.

I am well aware that there were many problems plaguing public education before school closures, and that teaching was a challenging and exhausting job. Today, however, the crisis teachers face is an order of magnitude worse than it was in 2019, and this crisis is almost entirely self-inflicted. Public school enrollment is plummeting, kids are refusing to go to school, and disciplinary problems are spiraling out of control.

Many districts are in freefall. In Baltimore, one high school student told the local news that, “The rising number of violence within city public schools has been unfathomable.” More than 80% of U.S. schools have reported an increase in behavior issues. Nearly half of all schools have teacher shortages, and teachers continue to leave in droves.

Nationally, the chronic absence rate doubled, and it is not showing signs of improvement. In one San Francisco elementary school, almost 90% of students were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year. In New York City, 50% of all Black students and 47% of all Latino students were chronically absent. Parents have no idea how far behind their kids really are, and schools cannot repair learning loss on a mass scale because the available workforce is simply not up to the task.