Why do teacher unions want to keep your schools closed?

By Dr. Terry Stoops

Raleigh, NC – This weekend, the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted that efforts to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic are “rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” The union later deleted the tweet after receiving a flood of criticism for the unsubstantiated — and frankly outlandish — claim, admitting that it is a “complex issue” that “requires nuance and much more discussion.” Apparently, that nuanced discussion will take place in a courtroom since the union filed an injunction to halt Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen schools next year.

man in black and white polo shirt beside writing board
Photo by Pixabay

While few unions have sued elected officials to block school reopening, teacher unions from across the nation subscribe to the Chicago Teachers Union’s position. Why do unions resist good-faith efforts to bring adults and children back to physical classrooms? After all, experts agree that school reopening is relatively safe and critical for the wellbeing of children.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key figure in the nation’s coronavirus response, enthusiastically endorses school reopening plans. In a recent interview on ABC’s “This Week,” he proclaimed that “the default position should be to try as best as possible within reason to keep the children in school, or to get them back to school.”

Fauci pointed out that there is minimal viral spread among children, particularly when schools observe basic mitigation measures. “Let’s try to get the kids back, but let’s try to mitigate the things that maintain and just push the kind of community spread that we’re trying to avoid,” he concluded.

Fauci reflects a worldwide consensus that has emerged since the coronavirus pandemic started earlier this year. According to an Oct. 29 article in Nature, “Data gathered worldwide are increasingly suggesting that schools are not hot spots for coronavirus infections. Despite fears, COVID-19 infections did not surge when schools and day-care centres reopened after pandemic lockdowns eased.”

Such findings led UNICEF officials to declare Tuesday: “The benefits of keeping schools open far outweigh the costs of closing them, and nationwide closures of schools should be avoided.”

The push to keep schools closed not only disregards the scientific consensus that the benefits of reopening outweigh the risks, but it ignores the fact that children of color, low-income students, and special-needs children are ill-served by keeping schools closed. Remote learning is widening the disparities that teacher unions claim to care so much about.

Preliminary research suggests that the harm to disadvantaged children far exceeds the learning loss that their more advantaged peers may encounter. Additionally, low-income and working parents must bear the extraordinary cost of supervising children who are compelled to remain in remote learning environments. In this way, one could argue that the effort to keep school buildings closed is “rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.”

A simple, self-centered calculus

Honestly, I don’t believe sexism, racism, and misogyny play a role in union measures to thwart school reopening plans. Instead, their opposition merely reflects a simple calculus. Teacher unions are designed to advance the interests of dues-paying members, regardless of the consequences for families. The minuscule chance of a school employee acquiring COVID-19 at school is deemed more important than the financial difficulties borne by parents or the academic struggles of children who may never recover from mounting learning deficits.

Teacher unions continue to resist the reopening of schools because there is no incentive to hasten the return to in-person instruction. Teachers will receive regular compensation regardless of the educational delivery method, so they prefer the one they perceive to be optimal for the teachers themselves.

Moreover, wages are not based on student performance, so teachers are not penalized when student learning loss accumulates from months of substandard remote learning. Instead, learning losses will be used as a justification for billions in additional “investments” in public schools, expenditures that would not be necessary if elected officials simply adhered to the scientific consensus and reopened schools.

Families, not teacher unions, should have the power to dictate the terms of school operations. Unfortunately, when elected officials refuse to reopen schools, many disadvantaged and working families do not have access to public and private school choice programs that would allow them to select an in-person option. While states have made great strides in expanding school choice, the pandemic revealed a vast unmet need for expanded educational options.

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research and director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.