Teachers rank near the top of any list of most trusted professions—and for good reason. Educating our children is noble work that benefits individuals and society. But Randi Weingarten and other teachers’ union officials have done their best to drive a wedge between teachers and the public this year with their overtly political Covid-19 response.
Weingarten is now on a public relations tour, trying to convince anyone who will listen that the national union she runs, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), supported opening schools all along.
“Our union has been trying to figure out not whether to but how to go back to in school learning” she said last week, “We know how important that was.”
While Weingarten has now rhetorically backed reopening schools, behind the scenes she used her organization’s political power to push outrageous demands on policymakers and dictate federal guidance that together ensured many school doors remained closed during the pandemic.
In fact, Weingarten’s own union, which has local affiliates in Philadelphia, Scranton, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania, added more demands for opening schools even after teachers had access to vaccines and research showed little danger in reopening.
Weingarten’s own union… added more demands for opening schools even after teachers had access to vaccines and research showed little danger in reopening.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, who was a teacher, have welcomed AFT and National Education Association officials to the White House with open arms. Predictably, Biden administration officials have quickly walked back statements they’ve made about schools opening after the unions voiced their disapproval.
We now know Weingarten and her union wrote Center for Disease Control guidance on in-person learning. This is just the latest example of how teachers’ unions have put their members in an increasingly uncomfortable position by engaging in political maneuvering.
Other teachers’ unions have followed Weingarten’s lead. Top officials from Pennsylvania teachers’ unions met several times last summer with Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration—right before state officials released stringent requirements for reopening schools. The new guidance led several districts to rescind plans for in-person learning, according to a Broad + Liberty report.
You might not know it, but many public-school teachers have supported a return to in-person learning for months. After all, their colleagues in private and parochial schools have largely been back in the classroom with little ill effect. Too often, though, the media treats teachers and teachers’ unions as synonymous. They are not.
After hearing that a local teachers’ union president said that teachers did not want schools to reopen, Wendy Wiedemeier, an elementary school teacher in the Souderton Area School District, resigned from her union in protest.
“But when they went to reopen schools, they had to beg teachers to teach virtually because teachers wanted to be back in the classroom,” she told my organization earlier this year.
Wiedemeier said she was concerned the union’s approach made parents afraid to send their children back to school. When parents asked her if it was safe to send their kids back to school, she assured them it was.
Nationally, a group of teachers, organized under the banner #Teachers4OpenSchools, have pushed back on the union narrative. “Schools are the best place, and the safest place, for children,” an Arizona teacher says.
These teachers’ voices have been drowned out by union officials like Weingarten. Though union officials claim to have polled their members, they ignored any dissent in favor of a hardline stance.
Though union officials claim to have polled their members, they ignored any dissent in favor of a hardline stance.
In the face of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances teachers, families, and students have faced for the past year, unions could have learned from the many schools that reopened safely and effectively and offered something other than one-size-fits-all policies.
Instead, unions demanded unrelated policy changes like defunding the police and raising the minimum wage before they would return to in-person work.
Schools and teachers once seemed to float above the political fray. But in the past year, Weingarten and other union officials at the state and national levels have used teachers as leverage to score progressive political victories and cement control over public education. The question is, what will this cost teachers?
Weingarten’s politicization of the teaching profession harms all teachers. But money talks. Teachers who do not like being used as political pawns should resign their membership and stop paying dues. Perhaps this is the only way teachers can get union officials’ attention.
David R. Osborne is an attorney and CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment (AmericansForFairTreatment.org), a community of current and former public-sector employees.