Data are piling up about the academic and mental-health catastrophes that pandemic school closures facilitated. Policymakers must work to prevent such widespread, long-lasting closures from happening again.
Locales with a high percentage of Democratic voters, even in red states, shut children out of school the longest. The mainstream press has begun to acknowledge as much; the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the New York Post have laid heavy blame at the feet of teachers’ unions. But it’s unsurprising that unions seek to advance the interests of their nearly 5 million members. More unnerving is how these unreasonable and unscientific demands met so little pushback from policymakers.
Simply criticizing teachers’ unions will do nothing to prevent similar debacles if there is another pandemic. Nor will looking to other countries for a policy blueprint. In Scandinavia and most of Europe, schools are under national control and one person or committee can order them open or closed. In the U.S., schools are locally controlled. About half of American children were in school for most of the pandemic; the rest were relegated to learning at home or, for many kids with more chaotic home environments, learning nowhere. In our roughly 14,000 public school districts and 30,000 private schools, every school board and private school leader made different decisions, citing different data and different risk tolerances. We recommend the following changes to policymakers, bearing these realities in mind.
First, Congress and governors should never again release large sums of money to school districts with so few strings attached. More than $180 billion of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds have now been doled out, with few contingencies. Even in winter 2021, Congress did not encumber funds with a requirement that schools provide in-person learning in exchange for all this money. Instead, Congress released dollars without requiring districts to return teachers to classrooms, greenlighting ESSER funds with language amounting to vague handwaving about opening and the understanding that governors would make it happen. Many did not. This decision should never have been left to local politicians or to governors; a minimum amount of in-person schooling should have been tied to releasing any ESSER money to states and districts.
When the George W. Bush administration authorized No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, it required school districts to enact specific reforms to get their federal funding. Such requirements were not in force when ESSER funds were released. The next time that Congress enacts any large disbursement of money to school districts for a specific purpose, the money must be tied to required actions to achieve said purpose, as was done with NCLB.
Second, the CDC should be led by a bipartisan commission, not a single director. We’ve written about the politicization of the CDC during the pandemic and the consequent damage to public health’s credibility. It will be deep and long-lasting. Major overhauls at the CDC are necessary. A key reform should include changing the directorship from a sole political appointee to a bipartisan commission, much as leadership is structured at the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission.
This change alone would make an enormous difference in providing a firewall between, for example, union heads and the scientists devising school guidance. A bipartisan commission directing and approving school-reopening guidance would surely have done a better job reflecting the national diversity of views and risk tolerance around this issue, as well as differences in scientific interpretations of data on transmission risks and the effectiveness of the various nonpharmaceutical interventions that were used pervasively throughout the pandemic.
Third, state lawmakers should prohibit remote learning as a substitute for live instruction, except under limited and specific circumstances. Even with the failed experiment of remote school under their belts, school districts are continuing to go virtual, both for Covid-related reasons such as staffing shortages or for non-Covid reasons such as behavioral issues or no air conditioning.
State lawmakers should enact legislation to bar districts from offering virtual instruction days as they please and make the funds contingent upon 180 days of live instruction (or whatever amount of days their state requires as a “school year”). Some states, including New Hampshire, Kansas, Tennessee, Iowa, Virginia, and others, have already taken steps to accomplish this by introducing or passing bills making clear that any closures must be made up at some point during the year. In Massachusetts, the state board of education can enact these policies without going through the entire legislative process, a quicker route to the same end. Legislative solutions such as these will be key to preventing lengthy closures should we ever find ourselves again in the situation where public-health emergencies—and the accompanying policy quagmires—are allowed to drag on for years.
Fourth, state election laws must address the political stranglehold that interest groups have on school boards. The top two teachers’ unions are leading political donors to Democrats, a status that grants them easy access to Congress and to the White House during Democratic administrations. National unions and their local offshoots also donate heavily to school board races, which can significantly improve a candidate’s chance of winning. A recent study by Manhattan Institute adjunct fellow Michael Hartney showed that, in both Democratic- and Republican-held districts, union-backed candidates were much more likely to win school board races, even in states such as Florida where unions are not particularly strong. At least 60 percent of union-backed candidates in Florida win school board races, and 70 percent win nationally.
Teachers’ union donations to school board races understandably render school board members loath to stand up to them. School boards vote on salaries and vacation time for members of the organizations that funded their elections. It is not surprising, then, that in many cities, school board members did not even try to open their schools in fall 2020, for fear of teacher strikes and sick-outs—and future retaliation when their next elections rolled around. Political contributions to Democratic leadership from teachers’ unions spiked in early 2021, as pressure to reopen schools mounted. This union grip on our election system is a huge problem without an easy fix.
A few states have taken steps to weaken union power. Some counties restrict how much candidates in local races, such as for sheriff and district attorney, can receive from unions doing business with the county. Surely counties and cities could find a way to put similar limits on school board races. Colorado has a bill to this effect under consideration. In states where such laws may be too cumbersome to impose, other routes to weakening union influence could be utilized. Wisconsin limited collective bargaining, for example. Other checks and balances on union power include laws prohibiting employers from automatically deducting union dues from paychecks and requiring government workers to opt in, instead of out, to withdrawal of union dues for political purposes.
Sunshine laws targeted at making union and PAC donations to school boards more transparent are also essential to informing voters about how special interests may be influencing elected officials. In an investigation of union donations to LAUSD school board races, the Los Angeles Times could not determine exactly how much money was given because of the many PACs involved and the likely-deliberate muddling between “media campaigns” and endorsements. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the local union, spent at least $4.1 million (over half of it donated by national and state educator unions) on donations to PACs and to candidates for school board races in 2017. The district had some of the most draconian Covid-related school closures in the U.S.
Teachers’ unions ran roughshod over the public education system during the pandemic, and few officials in power did much to stop them. This failure by those who could have acted will have devastating repercussions for American public school systems and for children themselves, especially those in poverty and children without academic support at home. Los Angeles Unified is projecting a 10 percent enrollment decline from 2019 to 2022–2023. New York Public Schools lost several hundred thousand students. About 1.5 million children left their public schools in 2020–2021. The predictable consequence of these failures, and other problems besetting public schools, is that half of Americans now say that they are dissatisfied with K-12 education.
But it’s insufficient to stop at blaming unions for this predicament. Americans should pass reforms to guarantee that, in a future pandemic, children will receive the in-person education that states are supposed to provide. Policymakers who want to prevent a similar catastrophe must address the factors that drove local, state, and national decision makers to cave to unreasonable union demands.
None of the suggested reforms will be easy. All will require significant political will to accomplish. But they could help prevent prolonged, unscientific, and unjustified school closures from happening again. Accountability and reforms are our only hope for preventing another round of the self-interested and cowardly decisions that have done heavy damage to a generation of American children.
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