FROM THE SPREAD of COVID-19 and the wave of state-imposed closures that followed to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the unrest that ensued, 2020 was a year in which American institutions flailed and failed. And few failures were bigger or more apparent than those of public sector unions.
By pushing to keep schools closed even as evidence mounted that in-person classes were relatively low-risk and remote learning was ineffective, teachers unions failed students and parents. By pushing to protect bad cops in the wake of multiple scandals, police unions failed the public they were sworn to protect. And in the process, America got a glimpse of what public-sector unions, regardless of the profession they represent, really do.
Unions that represent government employees seek to maintain an image of themselves as protectors of common institutions that can be relied upon to serve the public interest. But the upheavals of 2020 made clear that the priority for public-sector unions is the opposite: to protect the interests of taxpayer-funded employees, especially when those interests diverge from those of the public they nominally serve.
Yet the politics of public-sector unions have left reforms in limbo. Culturally and politically, police have long been linked with the American right. Teachers, in contrast, are a core constituency of the Democratic Party and some of its loudest supporters and biggest donors.
Public-sector union reform should be a bipartisan issue. Instead, it has stalled or inched along, with each side protecting its own.
TEACHERS VS. CHILDREN AND PARENTS OF ALL
THE missteps and public policy failures of 2020, few were more egregious than the failure to reopen public schools for young children. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were shuttered across the nation out of fear that they would become vectors of viral spread. But by mid-summer, evidence from other countries that had reopened their schools, combined with data on how often and how severely children contract the disease, pointed to a clear conclusion: Schools— especially for younger students—were relatively safe. “School districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs,” declared a press release describing a July report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Some states, many with Republican governors, chose to bring children back to classrooms in some fashion. But others did not, preferring hastily cobbled-together forms of virtual education. According to one tracker, 62 percent of public schools began the fall semester online only. The dire effects were plain to see. Young children of all demographics fared badly in virtual school, unable to focus effectively on screen-based education from home. The negative effects were most pronounced among poor and minority students, who often lacked consistent access to computers or internet connections and whose chaotic home lives often made learning even more difficult.
A November report from the NWEA, a nonprofit education research organization, examined test scores from more than 4.4 million students and found that kids in third to eighth grade performed 5–10 points worse, on average, than a year prior. Black and Hispanic students, as well as those who attended schools in low-income areas, saw significant declines in reading test scores. The analysis concluded that “the impacts of COVID-19 on achievement for the most vulnerable students may be underestimated.”
The decision to close schools also hurt the careers of working mothers. By September 2020, about 1.1 million adults had dropped out of the U.S. workforce; 865,000 were women, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
There was little good-faith dispute about the merits of in-person instruction, the consequences of closure, and the safety of reopening. Although many prominent public health experts initially were cautious, by fall even they had come around. “The default position should be to try as best as possible, within reason, to keep the children in school, to get them back to school,” said Anthony Fauci, a White House health adviser and the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in November.
The decision to keep so many schools closed was egregious because it was avoidable. It was egregious because its consequences were easy to predict. And it was egregious because it was largely the product of an organized fear campaign by a self-righteous, self-interested political faction that has for years been pursuing its own interests in direct opposition to the betterment of the families and children it is supposed to serve.
Across the country, teachers unions did everything they could to stop reopening. In July, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten threatened “protests,” “grievances or lawsuits,” and even “safety strikes.” The following month in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot reversed a plan to partially reopen schools two days after the Chicago Teachers Union—which went on strike in 2019—marched against resuming in-person instruction.
The unions’ rhetoric emphasized the question of whether reopening schools was safe. Teachers in Washington, D.C., lined up body bags outside school system offices. Weingarten’s opposition was premised on teacher and student safety. During the summer, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit seeking to block the state’s reopening plan on the grounds that it “arbitrarily disregards safety.”
But there was little sound reason to believe that schools were particularly unsafe. Children represented a tiny fraction of recorded COVID-19 cases, even in areas with significant outbreaks, and an even tinier share of deaths from the disease. Research in other countries found that virus transmission among schoolchildren, or between them and staff, was rare.
In New York City, where reopening was especially chaotic, labor representatives negotiated an agreement with Mayor Bill de Blasio to close schools if the city’s COVID-19 test positivity rate reached a seven-day average of more than 3 percent. But that threshold had no scientific justification. De Blasio defended it as a “social contract,” which sounded suspiciously like a way to avoid admitting it was pulled out of thin air.
There was never any attempt to justify the 3 percent trigger with evidence. “We don’t know what the science was behind it,” observes Daniel DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York. The basic idea, he says, was “let’s make it low.”
Yet in November, as COVID-19 cases once again began to spike in New York, the never-justified standard resulted in the abrupt closure of city schools (a decision that de Blasio later partially reversed). That result made no scientific sense. “If you look at the data, the spread among children and from children is not very big at all,” Fauci noted in November.
Teachers unions were “absolutely central players” in the battle over New York’s schools, says DiSalvo. “The coronavirus has shown a spotlight on the ways in which teachers unions’ interests and kids’ and parents’ interests are not aligned.” A similar misalignment is clear from the behavior of police unions.
POLICE JOBS VS. LIVES
ON MAY 25, Minneapolis police arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, following a 911 call reporting that he had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Less than 20 minutes after police arrived on the scene in response to that call, Floyd was dead.
An officer named Derek Chauvin had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for well over seven minutes, disregarding his repeated complaints that he could not breathe and keeping him pinned for minutes after he fell silent and lost consciousness. Two other officers helped restrain Floyd, while a fourth stood by as Floyd died under Chauvin’s knee. The incident was captured in a shocking cellphone video.
The following day, all four officers were fired. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; his colleagues were charged with aiding and abetting those crimes. Their trial is set to begin in March 2021. In the weeks after Floyd’s death, cities across America saw massive protests against the police brutality that had cost his life.
The four officers' conduct drew criticism from nearly all quarters. Politicians, pundits, and protesters held up the cops’ brutal indifference as a symbol of bad policing. Chauvin and his fellow officers nonetheless enjoyed a vociferous defense from the local police union.
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