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A Teachers Union Needs a New Lesson Plan
Calling people who want to reopen schools racist and sexist is a terrible way to debate important policy questions
By Charles Lipson
If you think schools should reopen, the Chicago Teachers Union has a few choice words for you. You are a racist, sexist misogynist. That’s what they tweeted to the world on December 6. Not quite as clever as “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries,” but it’s the thought that counts.
The CTU’s tweet was deleted after they realized it showed them without makeup or soft lighting. Still, it is worth considering because it tells us something larger about teachers unions and the national debate over reopening our schools.
First, when you can’t make good arguments, call the other side bad names. The teachers’ approach is similar to the old tale about lawyers: “When you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. When you have the law on your side, pound the law. When you don’t have either one, pound the table.” The teachers are pounding the table and cursing their opponents. In a better world, they would be reprimanding any students who acted that way.
Second, the teachers union doesn’t just say the other side is wrong; they say the other side is evil, driven by evil motives. Mind you, in this case, the other side comprises folks who are damned simply for wanting to send their kids back to school. Perhaps they are caring parents who want their kids to get a decent education, parents who know online learning is failing in K-12 schools. Perhaps they are working people who can’t earn a living if their kids are at home all day. Not according to the teachers union, which calls them sexist and racist. “Misogyny” is just a special bonus for people who like big words.
Using names such as these to slur opponents is worse than just bad faith and bad arguments. When opportunists and demagogues play the bigotry card in this way, they debase serious charges of discrimination for their own gain. Doing so has the same effect as false cries of “Wolf! Wolf!” Repeated false accusations drown out true cries of alarm, when help is really needed. If every political opponent is tarred with labels of racism and sexism, then authentic charges of discrimination are lost in the noise. What should be grave charges, made only with real evidence, are degraded by cheap counterfeits.
Third, and most interesting, the tweet shows how the teachers union really sees education: it is mainly an “adult employment” issue. That’s understandable for a union. For them, it is necessarily about their members’ employment, income, health and safety. That’s what unions are for. But if it is obvious that teachers unions see education as primarily about their own members’ employment, it is far less obvious why politicians should see the issue that way, especially now. After all, they have a lot of constituents who want their kids back in class.
The simplest explanation for politicians’ behavior is that their constituents are far less organized than teachers unions and, until recently, far less focused on that single issue. The more constituents become concerned about school closures, the more they will hold politicians responsible for it, the weaker the unions’ advantage. The unions know that, so they are trying to marginalize opponents before they gain traction.
Why the tweet’s emphasis on race and sex? Because Chicago city schools, like those in all big cities, employ huge numbers of women and minorities, especially African Americans. If that’s the school workforce, and if those workers don’t want to return to the classroom (but still want their pay), then those on the other side of the debate surely oppose women and minorities, too. Q.E.D.
Not so fast. First, the debate over whether to return to in-person classes in K-12 schools is a perfectly legitimate one, whichever side you favor. To say those on one side are anti-woman or anti-minority is also to say that it is illegitimate to debate the issue. That’s worse than intellectually dishonest. It’s precisely the kind of effort to suppress and demonize political opponents that poisons modern American politics.
Second, almost all the children in Chicago city schools are minorities themselves, and so are the parents who want them back in class. Many are single mothers. Are they the racists, sexists and misogynists? That’s more than a stretch. It’s ludicrous.
Beyond the union’s mudslinging lies a very serious problem for parents across America—and for the politicians who represent them. The dilemma is especially acute for Democrats because they rely on two constituencies that are now pulling in opposite directions. For years, the Democratic Party has worked closely with teachers unions at the city, state and national levels. The unions themselves give money and in-kind support to favored candidates; their members knock on doors and turn out the vote. And so it makes perfect sense for Democratic politicians to reliably support the teachers unions’ agenda.
The emerging political problem is that many Democratic voters really want their kids back in school. That is particularly true of African American and Hispanic voters, who depend disproportionately on big-city public schools, which are heavily unionized. Many of these voters are parents who cannot work full time if their kids at home. Their jobs simply cannot be done online. They know, too, that their children have lost a full year’s education and socialization. Many lack computers for every child and don’t have good internet connections. The Biden administration will have to face these conflicting pressures from parents and teachers unions as soon as Biden takes office. Mayors and governors face them already, and the pressures are growing.
The worsening pandemic compounds the problems for all politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike. Ordinary people have reached their breaking point, financially and psychologically. Long gone are the days of “15 days to stop the spread.” It’s been more than 150, and the spread has gotten worse again. The vaccine is not expected to provide “herd immunity” until late spring or summer 2021. It’s not hard to see why small businesses, facing ruin, will disobey orders to shut down and why they will have some community support. In fact, we are likely to see a rising tide of civil disobedience at the same time we see rising COVID hospitalizations. Now is the winter of our discontent.
These are vexing problems for families and public policymakers, and they deserve serious debate. That means discussing competing values of physical health, psychological well-being, income and people’s tolerance for yet more lockdowns. It means discussing what we know and don’t know about public health measures to slow the spread. It means asking if we should treat elementary schools, middle schools and high schools the same way. In a democracy, those questions should be subjects of robust debate, where all sides are free to participate without fear and without enduring insults or suffering reputational damage. What we don’t need are vitriolic tweets, designed to shut down that debate. Those shouldn’t be on the lesson plan.