Union activities beg the question: How, specifically, is this going to make the education of children better?

Jonathan Butcher

“A sharp distinction must always be made between the physical survival of particular schools and the survival of the educational quality in those schools.”

So writes American economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell in his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. If we measure analysis by its predictive abilities — anticipating problems that will recur when demonstrably successful ideas are ignored — Sowell’s book is nothing short of prophetic.

Consider: The American Federation of Teachers’ announced at the end of July that it would support a local chapter’s decision to go on strike “as a last resort” if schools opened with “unsafe school reopening plans.” These qualifying phrases seem to have been included for rhetorical purposes only.

Just days after the announcement, union members across the country, from Los Angeles to Baltimore, held protests, even though these and other large school districts are not opening in-person. (Florida’s constitution and state law prohibit teachers and other public employees from striking; however, the Florida Education Association recently won a lawsuit against the state over an order mandating the reopening of all public school campuses. The state has appealed.)

Last week, Detroit’s union (an affiliate of the AFT) voted in favor of a strike if policymakers changed the district’s current policy of offering classes online only.

Sowell predicted unions were capable of as much, writing, “Since teacher unions have millions of members and spend millions of dollars on political campaigns, they do not need logic or evidence to gain the support of elected officials who need campaign contributions to finance their re-election campaigns.”

Political action, not improved student learning, is behind union activity. The union chapters behind the “National Day of Resistance” on Aug. 3 that followed the AFT’s announcement posted an agenda that included calls for “police-free schools,” “canceling rents and mortgages,” and “providing direct cash assistance to those not able to work or who are unemployed,” along with a “massive infusion of federal money.”

Here, again, Sowell proved prescient. As he noted in his book, teacher unions embrace a slew of policies for which “there are usually no educational benefits to students.” Where does a child’s education fall on their list of priorities? As Sowell observes, “The plain and direct question that must be asked, again and again, is: ‘How, specifically, is this going to make the education of children better?’”

As Sowell notes, such interest groups are “enduring institutions with enduring personnel” that “maintain a given set of policies and practices over time.” This was evident last year, when teacher-union members in West Virginia refused to work until state lawmakers stopped considering a proposal to create private learning opportunities for children with special needs. Unions in Kentucky did the same. Strikes are nothing new, but unlike previous year’s strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia and elsewhere, these 2019 job actions were not centered on pay and working conditions. These strikes were efforts to drive policy by force.

Re-opening schools is a local concern. State agencies and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control can offer useful information and guidance, but in the end, the decision on how public schools will operate — be it with virtual, hybrid, or in-person instruction — should be left to members of a community, including parents, educators, and health officials. In making these decisions, the question foremost in their minds should be Sowell’s: How will this make the education of our children better?

Parents and educators are not waiting for union demands to be met — nor should they. As some school districts such as Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and more announce they will offer only virtual instruction to start the new school year, parents are enrolling their children elsewhere (Detroit private schools are reporting waiting lists), choosing to homeschool or organizing neighborhood “pandemic pods” alongside teachers.

Families and policymakers alike should tire of teacher unions’ attempts to maintain power when parents choose an option outside of a child’s assigned school. Union demonstrations garner headlines and try to browbeat school officials to give them what they want. But recent activities, with their laundry list of assorted policy demands, reveal these special interest groups to be more interested in political opportunism than providing the best possible education for students.

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