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OPINION

Democrats should stop their lockstep support of teachers unions

A big force in the party, teachers unions are an implacable lobby for their self-interest.

A Boston Teachers Union rally at City Hall delivered the union's "Plan for a Safe Restart" to Mayor Walsh in August.
A Boston Teachers Union rally at City Hall delivered the union's "Plan for a Safe Restart" to Mayor Walsh in August.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Frustrated over her failure to reopen the Chicago schools, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last month the city had managed to forge peace with all but two of the more than 40 organized labor units.

One was the Fraternal Order of Police, which she said, “has a lot of right-wing Trump aspirations.” The other was the Chicago Teachers Union. The pairing may make Democrats uncomfortable — and it’s about time.

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May exposed a systemic problem in American policing, in which bad cops are insulated from investigation and corrective measures by layers of union protections. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a similar problem with teachers unions, especially in inner cities. Across the country, unions have played an unconscionable role in keeping schools closed — long after in-school experience showed that, as the British Journal of Medicine put it, “Closing schools is not evidence based and harms children.” Most European schools reopened in September.

In the United States, remote learning has caused minorities disproportionate harm. Children without computers or parents at home are less likely to benefit from — or even attend — remote classes. According to a recent Chicago ABC7 News report, nearly half of students have been no-shows at several Chicago high schools. An October 2020 Chicago Public Schools report noted, “The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased inequities in the district . . . [S]tudents in cluster programs, and Black and Latinx students are attending school at significantly reduced rate.”

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Private schools in the United States have stayed mostly open, meaning the economic learning gap has widened. But it isn’t only wealthy schools that have reopened. Parochial schools in Boston and elsewhere continued live teaching without becoming COVID-19 spreaders.

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Teachers unions aren’t the only reason America has failed the educational COVID-19 test — but they are a big one. Others include the lack of centralized educational policy and a culture of blame that encourages extreme risk-aversion.

Democrats need to reckon with this painful truth: Teachers unions, which are a big force in the party, are not working in the public interest. They are an implacable lobby for their perceived self-interest. As noted in a study by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, “Teachers unions have vigorously resisted putting their members back in the classroom, filing lawsuits and issuing strike threats to compel school districts to delay the return to in-person learning.” The study says union strength in a district strongly correlates to the likelihood of a school remaining closed.

America may be the only country that reopened its economy but not its schools. Shopping malls are back; grocery clerks never left, delivery drivers, pharmacy workers, and automobile mechanics remained on the front lines throughout the height of the pandemic. Our public schools are last responders.

And blue cities and blue states, from California and Washington state to Chicago, Massachusetts, and Maryland, where unions are most powerful, have had the worst track record at reopening. To quote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Democrats “have presided over one of the worst blows to the education of disadvantaged Americans in history.”

In city after city, unions threatened to strike to keep schools closed, lobbied for less online time, and balked at compromise. They behaved, in short, like entrenched power groups. In Boston, unions used the pandemic to double down on a long-held anti-reform agenda: opposing testing and greater use of technology.

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Nationwide, in a predictable pattern, every time a union demand was met, new objections were raised to reopening. Chicago spent $100 million on safer building ventilation and other protective measures and was rewarded by threats of a teachers strike. Seattle’s teachers voted against reopening this month.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, now says, “The vaccine is a big piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece.” Tang and the Boston Teachers Union continue to press for improved ventilation and other safety measures. Massachusetts announced that elementary students would return early in April; middle school students not until the end of April; no date has been set for high schools. United Teachers Los Angeles has yet to ratify an agreement to reopen even though, in California, a 27-year-old teacher can get vaccinated before her 60-year-old parents. No wonder Governor Gavin Newsom said, “If we wait for the perfect, we might as well just pack it up.”

Many fear that remote schooling causes lasting harm. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco forecasts a long-term increase in dropouts. A University of Pennsylvania study says each month of missed school could result in $12,000 less in future earnings. The cost in mental health to youngsters forced to endure prolonged isolation is harder to measure but surely considerable.

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Union intransigence during the pandemic is a fast-frame replay of how unions have opposed the charter school movement. In Massachusetts, charter schools combine a no-excuses approach with heavy testing, a longer school day, and tutoring. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, inner-city charter students dramatically outperform those in traditional schools. Indeed, charters “close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap.” According to a Brown-Annenberg paper, charter attendance in Boston “substantially decreases the special needs achievement gap.”

The response by unions locally and nationally has not been to experiment with charter techniques or welcome more such schools — but to “vehemently lobbying against charters’ growth. Nationally, they have also succeeded at slowing the growth of charters.

George Floyd’s killing unleashed a torrent of fresh ideas about policing. Not all of them were good, and the net effect of the reform wave won’t be measurable for years. But two changes are significant. One is a greater willingness by communities to say, “Everything is on the table.” The other is a wake-up on the meaning of public service. While police officers do vital and sometimes dangerous work, they must be at the service of the public, not the reverse.

The same should go for education. Inner city schools have underperformed for far too long. With public enrollment falling in many jurisdictions, there is no time to lose. Elected officials need to be open to new ideas and new pedagogical approaches — no matter the intransigence of teachers unions. It will take political courage, but Democrats especially should remember: There is nothing progressive about keeping kids out of school.

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Roger Lowenstein lives in Cambridge. His latest book is “America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve.”