Barone: Will Biden’s payoff to teacher unions repel suburban parents?
By Michael Barone |
You expect a certain number of stumbles from a new administration. The incoming Biden team professed dismay at its predecessor’s “nonexistent” coronavirus vaccine distribution program, and this week President Biden complained of the vaccine, “which we didn’t have when I came into office.” He promised to deliver 1 million a week.
But actually, there were 1.5 million vaccinations on Inauguration Day, and Biden had received two doses of vaccine — on Dec. 21 and Jan. 11. It’s easier to achieve your goal if you don’t set the goalposts past a mark already reached.
Will something similar work on reopening schools? On July 6 last year, President Donald Trump called for reopening schools for the fall semester that had been closed. Science was on his side. Numerous studies showed low rates of infection and illness among children — more children die from influenza than COVID-19 — and negligible transmission to teachers in schools here and abroad.
But Trump’s statement evidently politicized the issue and sparked increased opposition to school openings among parents and teachers — and, importantly, among teacher unions, which contribute enormous amounts of money and manpower for Democratic politicians.
The results are writ large on the map. Less than 20 percent of public schools are open in the three West Coast states, well under half in Democratic states such as Illinois and Minnesota, and states with strong teachers unions such as North Carolina and Virginia. More than 80% of public schools are open in Republican-governed Florida, Texas, Utah, and the Dakotas.
There is no doubt that school closings have hurt students. Instruction over tablets is far less effective than in-person. Children lose touch with friends and miss chances to exercise. Disadvantaged children without computers fall far behind. For an especially vivid and heartbreaking account, see reporter Alec MacGillis’s piece in Pro Publica and the New Yorker.
The case for reopening schools is strong enough, despite Trump’s advocacy, to persuade liberal commentators such as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and political scientist Lee Drutman.
Impassioned pleas for reopening appeared recently from liberals such as Rebecca Bodenheimer in Oakland, California, and epidemiologist Benjamin Linas in Brookline, Massachusetts. The school board in affluent and long-integrated Montclair, New Jersey, is suing its teacher union to open the schools.
Of the same view, it seems, is Centers for Disease Prevention and Control Director Rochelle Walensky. “There is increasing data,” she said at the White House on Feb. 3, “to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.” She was quickly undercut by the White House press secretary, who, absurdly, said she was just speaking “in her personal capacity.” Jen Psaki later added that opening 50 percent of schools one day a week would be enough.
By Feb. 14, the goalposts were moved. Walensky was forced to echo, unconvincingly, new CDC guidelines developed with “stakeholders” (i.e., teacher unions) that didn’t mandate five-day, in-person instruction, but did impose mandatory 6 feet social distancing (Walensky had said 3 feet was enough for her home town of Newton, Massachusetts, last summer) and mandatory masking. “It takes only a modicum of sense to realize,” writes economist Tyler Cowen, “that if you tell people that six feet of distance is needed, in essence you are saying a safe reopening is impossible altogether.”
The guidelines also recommend against the full reopening of upper grades in counties with “low” or “moderate” coronavirus transmission — a standard that includes 99% of the country, according to education writer Erika Sanzi. Despite Biden’s town hall assurance that he wants schools reopened, the guidelines seem designed to let teacher unions keep schools closed.
The goalposts have been moved a long way, off the field altogether, from candidate Biden’s promise to reopen schools to assurance to guidelines whose fine print allows many to stay closed.
There are broader lessons here. One of the problems of big government is that, over time, it incentivizes politicians, here Democrats, but sometimes Republicans too, to favor the providers of services over the intended beneficiaries of services. Teachers unions are organized. Children and parents are not.
Another lesson is that no organized interest has an eternal lock on the system. Parents can flee public school systems closed by unions to other school districts or private schools. That’s already happening, to some unknown extent.
Voters have a say, too. Some Republicans see teacher union shutdowns as a prime 2022 issue, particularly in affluent suburbs, which parents chose for their public schools. Will this early stumble lead to a crash landing? We’ll see.
Michael Barone is the senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, a resident fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, and the longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.