How the Education Establishment Botched COVID-19 and Boosted the School Choice Movement

Thanks to their arrogant disregard for the needs of students and their parents, teachers unions have inadvertently helped grow the educational freedom movement

Unintentional advocate. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaking in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. Image Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

For the past two years, America’s most powerful teachers’ unions have sought to capitalize on the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These organizations have thrown their considerable weight around, cowing politicians into keeping schools closed much longer than science or common sense demanded and successfully lobbying for hundreds of billions in COVID relief for these same schools and their teachers.

Yet perhaps never before has “never let a good crisis go to waste” backfired so spectacularly. Thanks to their hubris and overreach, unions and their allies in the educational establishment have unintentionally given an enormous boost to the school choice movement.

Overplaying Their Hand

In the earliest days of the pandemic, the American public assented to unprecedented policy measures like shuttering K-12 campuses in order to “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve.” Polling from March 2020 in the bellwether state of Wisconsin, for instance, found 86% of voters in support of closing schools and businesses to combat the contagion.

Yet by the late spring and summer of 2020, warning lights had already begun flashing about the academic and emotional toll of sustained school closures on students. At the same time, a growing body of scientific evidence affirmed the comparatively small risk that COVID-19 posed to children.

So when the fall 2020 semester rolled around, many parents across the country naturally expected schools to reopen and for their children to regain access to critical in-person instruction. Instead, they watched the needs of their children collide squarely with the political ambitions of the National Education Association (NEA) and its fellow teachers’ unions.

Indeed, like some tragic, self-fulfilling prophesy, members of the NEA (the largest teachers union in the country) had voted less than a year earlier against a resolution to “re-dedicate itself to the pursuit of increased student learning in every public school in America by putting a renewed emphasis on quality education. NEA will make student learning the priority of the Association.”

So when the time came to truly choose between prioritizing students’ education versus union members’ demands, local chapters like the Chicago Teachers Union orchestrated a National Day of Resistance, in which the need for kids to be back in class took a back seat not only to the preferences of school staff, but to a laundry list of their political demands, ranging from “police free schools” to a “moratorium on new charter or voucher programs and standardized testing,” to a “massive infusion of federal money to support the reopening funded by taxing the billionaires and Wall Street.” (One might ask what relevance banishing police and taxing billionaires has to do with a school’s ability to reopen, but the unions’ opposition to charter and voucher programs admittedly made perfect—albeit nakedly self-interested—sense: thwarting the rise of charter and private schools who were accepting kids in-person and thus threatening to attract families away from district-operated remote learning). Meanwhile, union organizers from Arkansas and Arizona to New York and Wisconsin wrote their own gravestone inscriptions, penned fake obituaries and even paraded around faux coffins to protest the idea of returning to school amid COVID, all as students’ learning losses threatened to continue piling up.

The result? As CNBC reported at the time, “half of U.S. elementary and high school students will study virtually only this fall,” (emphasis added), with only one in four students attending school in-person five days a week. Yet perhaps even more damning, as education researcher Corey DeAngelis discovered, schools’ actual reopening patterns indicated that “reopening decisions have more to do with influence from teachers’ unions than safety concerns.”

Of course, the unions’ political machinations were by no means limited to simply slowing students’ return to learning, demanding draconian health protocols or even attempting to undermine charter and private school competitors. Rather, they and the education establishment successfully extracted from taxpayers across the nation an almost unimaginable sum of money ostensibly in the name of COVID recovery. Indeed, emboldened—rather than satisfied—with the extraordinary $13 billion of emergency federal funding first secured in the March 2020 CARES Act, the K-12 education establishment managed to pocket nearly $200 billion of “COVID relief” all told by the time President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan in 2021.

A Pyrrhic Victory

So, almost a quarter trillion dollars later, it’s clear that the unions have not let the COVID crisis go to waste. But for all the unthinkable long-term costs they forced upon students, parents and taxpayers, perhaps the unions’ greatest long-term COVID legacy will be their own undoing: the freeing of students from a system that has long ceased to put them first. Indeed, while unnecessary school closures, mask mandates and rolling mass quarantines of students would continue blanketing America’s education system across much of the nation for nearly two years, the frustration—and desperation—of parents determined to fight for a better experience for their kids may have put K-12 on a permanent course correction—one that will long outlast COVID-19 and that empowers parents with the freedom and flexibility to choose the educational path for their children.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising star of the school choice movement, had already committed himself to parental empowerment even before the pandemic—signing, for instance, legislation establishing Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program in 2019 to provide financial support to low- and middle-income families seeking to access private education. And rather than backing down in the face of the union machine that demanded prolonged COVID closures, DeSantis committed Florida schools to reopening in the fall of 2020 for parents who wished to send their kids to them.

This guiding principle that families deserve the opportunity to weigh the benefits of different educational environments for their own children—rather than passively waiting for union-aligned administrators to assign their kids’ fate—has now fueled an unprecedented movement nationwide.

Consider for instance, the explosion of states adopting education savings account (ESA) programs for kids in response to COVID-induced closures of their public schools. These programs take a portion of the funds that taxpayers would otherwise have spent educating a child in a public school and instead deposit those dollars directly into an individualized account for each child, allowing the family to pay for things like private school tuition, at-home curriculum materials, tutoring and special education services.

When COVID hit, just five states had programs of this sort, and all were restricted to particular groups of students. Within 12 months, that number had doubled to 10 states, with West Virginia lawmakers passing the nation’s first ESA open to all K-12 kids. An extraordinary accomplishment on its own, the passage of West Virginia’s ESA program is all the more stunning when contrasted with the events leading up to it. In fact, just a single year before the COVID closures, West Virginia’s teachers’ unions had successfully gone on strike to shut down the state’s schools in protest against a proposed ESA bill—even though that legislation would have also brought additional funding for public school teachers. As American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten had boasted at the time, “Teachers are willing to forsake their raises for the proposition that public education must be protected.” Yet as the union boss has since discovered, so too are parents and policymakers now willing to forsake a status quo that fails to protect and prioritize students.

Of course, 2021 earned the moniker “The Year of Educational Choice” for more than a handful of new ESA programs. Lawmakers in 19 states responded to the surging parental demand by establishing or expanding more than 30 K-12 choice programs, including vouchers and tax credit scholarships to allow kids opportunities outside the traditional public school system.

Yet even apart from the legislative changes that ensure families have opportunities to select their schooling environment, the unions’ COVID closure (and masking, etc.) policies have ignited a grassroots exodus of students from traditional district offerings—a phenomenon that seems unlikely to be fully reversed.

In states like Arizona, for instance, traditional public schools hemorrhaged roughly 50,000 students in the wake of mandatory school closures, while the state’s nonunionized public charter schools have continued growing overall enrollments every year. Perhaps even more remarkably, as reported by the U.S. Census, the share of families homeschooling their kids more than doubled nationally from 5.4% in the 2019-2020 school year to 11.1% by fall 2020.

The unions would have been wise to anticipate the findings of the Census Bureau, which concluded that “families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their childcare needs and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children.”

Or, they should have embraced suggestions called for by more student-oriented teachers. As one Arizona public school teacher observed amid the state’s enrollment swings:

The best solution to the problem—the only adequate alternative to regular school—was the universal implementation of pandemic pods. Small bubbles of students meeting together in person to learn. If school buildings were to be closed indefinitely, pods should have been implemented across the state, utilizing any and all empty spaces, with school administrators acting as coordinators, and issuing emergency teaching certifications to young adults as needed to guide these modified classrooms.

Of course, such intrepidness would represent the very scourge the unions fought so hard to prevent: not the statistical risks of COVID-19, but rather the unacceptable threats to the education establishment’s dominance over the entire form and function of our K-12 education system.

The academic and emotional damage of the unions’ COVID-era policies will likely haunt a generation of students for years to come. But if there were no other silver lining of the self-interested policies of America’s education establishment, they will have unleashed an even longer-lasting impact on American education: the freeing of students from a system that treats them as pay stubs for an increasingly costly status quo.

Union leaders like AFT President Weingarten may well have sown some of the most destructive COVID-era policy decisions in America, but by overplaying their hands, she and others may ultimately be best remembered as having inadvertently given a great boost to the educational freedom movement. Indeed, perhaps well-deserved was the title that choice advocates facetiously bestowed upon Weingarten in 2021: “school choice advocate of the year.”

In short, America’s teachers’ unions certainly didn’t let the COVID crisis go to waste, but when it comes to the seismic shifts they unleashed among parents and policymakers across the country, they may one day wish they had.

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