Covid Is Making the Case for More School Choice

Teachers unions are facing criticism for dragging their feet on reopening schools, and they deserve it. But they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. Instead of expecting them to behave differently, we ought to rethink the way we run our school systems.

The case that schools can provide in-person instruction safely during the coronavirus pandemic has gotten overwhelming. Three researchers for the Centers for Disease Control have just concluded that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” They caution that schools should continue to require mask usage and social distancing while improving ventilation, but note that “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring.”

Public-school teachers in Chicago are nonetheless going on strike to avoid in-person instruction. In Montclair, New Jersey, union opposition blocked a planned reopening. In Fairfax County, Virginia, the union says it doesn’t want the public schools my nephew and niece attend to reopen even this coming fall. It’s a particularly outrageous position given that the county put teachers high on its priority list for vaccination.

The shift away from classroom teaching appears to be harming students. This fall, test scores for students in grades three through eight were 5 to 10 percentile points below the previous year in math. Reading scores held up better, but there were some signs that Black and Hispanic students were slipping. Researchers expect achievement gaps to widen. Children are also suffering psychologically.

It’s an appalling situation, and teachers unions have done a lot to bring it about. The extent to which an area’s schools are operating remotely has more to do with the strength of local unions than with trends in Covid caseloads.

But what else did we think the teachers unions would do? They have a better reputation than other unions because most people value teachers and what they do for kids. Most of us know a teacher who is overworked and underappreciated. But the unions themselves don’t exist to pursue the interests of children, or the common good. Their job is to represent their members.

Foes of the teachers unions often cite an apocryphal quotation from the late Albert Shanker, who led them for decades: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Whether he said it or not has been disputed, but he definitely called it a “fact of life” that there isn’t “a voice for students in the bargaining process.” And he was right about that.

The unions’ current focus on what appears to be a minuscule risk to the safety of their members may be unreasonable. But looking after their safety is one of their leaders’ core responsibilities. Making sure children learn isn’t. That’s not an opinion about their character; it’s a fact about their incentives.

In theory, the government officials who sit on the other side of the bargaining table from the unions are there to represent everyone else’s interests. But those officials are often politically dependent on the unions – as the Biden administration is illustrating. It says reopening schools is a priority. But White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain is pretending that the unions are not posing an obstacle. The problem, he says, is that schools need $130 billion extra to implement safety measures.

It’s an excuse. Using CDC estimates of the cost of safety measures, Dan Lips of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a free-market think tank, calculates that the national cost should be less than $23 billion. The Cares Act last spring created a $16 billion fund for Covid relief for schools. But the schools have not been rushing to use the money. As of Nov. 30, New York had, for example, spent less than a third of what Congress sent it. In December, Congress sent public schools another $54 billion anyway. Another $130 billion won’t get schools reopened if the unions don’t want it.

A recent survey found that 60% of private schools are providing instruction in-person, while only 24% of public schools are. The most likely explanation is that parents – the group of adults with the greatest interest in children’s health and welfare – have more sway over the schools they directly fund. Their influence over their kids’ schools isn’t mediated through politicians or bureaucracies. And private school administrators, while having to take teachers’ interests into account in order to attract and retain them, do not have to answer to powerful unions.

The fundamental argument for school choice has always been that it would give more power to parents. It’s an argument that the schools’ response to Covid has strengthened. In the context of the education system our society maintains and puts up with, the teachers unions are behaving rationally. It's the rest of us who aren't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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