Several American cities have seen their schools shutter recently thanks to teacher strikes. Over the past two years, labor unrest has hit big cities with prominent teachers’ unions, including Columbus, Minneapolis, Oakland, Sacramento, and, most recently, Portland.

Even suburban educators are hitting the picket line. Last month, teachers in tony Newton, Massachusetts, where average pay is $93,000, engaged in an illegal strike that kept students out of school for weeks. Newton was among the tardiest Massachusetts communities in reopening its schools after the Covid shutdowns. The walkout did nothing to help the town’s recovery efforts.

The Newton Teachers Association cited many grievances to justify its work stoppage, but at the heart of its campaign was the false claim that Newton had been perennially stingy to its schools. NTA president Mike Zilles, for example, lambasted the city’s mayor for “chronic underfunding.” The data prove otherwise. Newton has steadily boosted school spending despite falling student enrollment. Between the start of the pandemic and 2022, enrollment in the district declined by 8 percent. This included one in thirty Newton school-aged kids leaving the local public system for private schools.

Ironically, this student exodus was partly the union’s own doing, as it fought to keep schools closed far longer than most other districts nationally. Even so, Newton’s inflation-adjusted spending per pupil rose about 8 percent over the last five years and 17 percent over the last decade, an increase attributable to expanding district employment despite smaller enrollment. Between 2012 and 2022, the number of teachers that the district employed grew 15 percent, while student enrollment shrunk by about 4 percent.

Contra the union’s “chronic underfunding” claim, then, the district had been receiving more money and employing more people to educate fewer students. Nevertheless, the bogus claim was central to the union’s strike messaging. Many parents even accepted it.

The belief that schools are chronically underfunded isn’t limited to Newton. According to a survey one of us conducted during the 2022 Cooperative Election Study, fewer than one in three Americans knows that the federal government sent hundreds of billions in emergency pandemic aid to the nation’s schools, a historic funding boost. (This does not include additional funding from state governments, which were rolling in money from their own pandemic bailouts.) In fact, one in five voters thinks that Uncle Sam cut education spending during the pandemic. This misimpression enabled the NTA to build popular support for its strikes with parents and other community members, and teachers’ unions around the country likely will rely on such ignorance in contract negotiations this summer, with the last of the pandemic-era federal aid running out in September.

In this environment, Newton’s experience may be a preview of broader labor unrest to come. Schools’ financial woes present fertile ground for union mobilization and electioneering. Public schools hemorrhaged students during the pandemic, which accelerated the enrollment declines that were already under way due to a shrinking school-aged population. Federal money allowed districts to backfill emerging budget holes and put off fraught but necessary right-sizing decisions. As that money expires, districts will be forced to confront these realities.

School-district leaders are about to find themselves in an unenviable position. Federal money is drying up. Student enrollment is declining. And unions have a history of arguing that any resulting budgetary adjustments are evidence of underfunded public education and justify teachers’ strikes. But fiscal and enrollment realities will not change, nor will the academic needs of students still reeling from pandemic learning loss.

Local leaders’ only option: preempt union talking points and educate voters about the billions of dollars injected into local schools in recent years and the need to adjust to smaller student populations. Winning local parents and taxpayers to their side before an imminent strike won’t prevent labor action, but it would put communities in a stronger position to push back on union demands and make better choices on behalf of children in American public schools.

Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


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