Labor Watch

President of Teachers Union Tries to Rewrite History . . . and Fails

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), caught some heat on X this last month. On December 5, 2023, she wrote:

In-person learning is where kids do best, which is why educators & their unions worked hard to reopen US schools for safe in-person learning beginning back in April 2020 and why we’ve spent the last several years following the pandemic prioritizing public schooling & investing in #RealSolutionsForKids that help them recover & thrive.

Is she deluded or straight-up lying?

Real Harm

Perhaps a little of both. Maybe she is banking off the fact that America seems to easily forgive and forget once time has passed. But the detrimental effects of the shutdowns on a whole generation’s educational progress certainly lives on, and the key role teachers unions played in both shutting down in-person learning and keeping schools closed during the COVID pandemic is historical fact, no matter what Weingarten tweets.

The harm done to American children’s education is undeniable. For example, in 2022, U.S. students produced one of the lowest average math scores ever recorded on the Program for International Assessment (PISA), a test funded by the U.S. Department of Education. PISA measures the academic abilities of 15-year-old students nationwide. Compared with the rest of the developed world, U.S. student experienced a 13-point drop from 2018.

Reread the previous paragraph, and let that sad reality sink in. It’s not that America had no educational flaws before the pandemic, but the school shutdowns exacerbated an already failing public educational system. What was already trending downward took a nosedive.

A group of education experts testified to the House Committee on Education this year, stating that the school closures during the COVID pandemic were the “biggest domestic policy failure of our lifetime,” further stating that the “shutdowns were the largest educational shock” in U.S. history. This was a massive scandal that’s hard to overstate. Real harm was done to our students. Just imagine the long-term effects of stunting the learning growth of a whole generation of children.

Educational Malpractice

So who is to blame?

While there’s plenty of blame to go around to politicians, etc., the bulk lies with the teachers unions, with Randi Weingarten playing a prominent role as president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in America. “The unions have made it pretty clear that they do not want teachers back in school buildings until they’re 100 percent sure they’re safe,” said Katharine Strunk, a professor at Michigan State University who studies education labor markets.

Add to that, in February 2021 when schools were starting to reopen, the AFT successfully lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue much more restrictive guidelines than initially drafted. Instead of “following the science” as claimed at the time, the CDC appears to have followed the teachers union.

In a working paper two political science professors analyzed over 10,000 school districts and found that the stronger the local teachers union, the less likely the district had in-person learning. Their findings show a strong correlation between the power of the teachers unions and keeping schools shut down. I saw this firsthand when my former district was trying to open schools for in-person learning. The local union would not allow it, threatening that union members would not return until the district offered the teachers an extra stipend of $200 a day to come back. I guess safety can be bought.

If humor can be a consolation while our students suffer educational malpractice, at least Weingarten wasn’t spared public humiliation for her rewriting of history. Since Elon Musk took over X, Community Notes on the platform have served as a sort of reverse fact-checking mechanism, mocking the establishment that used to wield such tools to control the narrative. In this case, Community Notes were used to skewer Weingarten’s obvious lies. Under her December 5th post, Community Notes corrected the record, stating, “Weingarten, along with nationwide and local teachers unions, advocated for school closures well into 2021.” She threatened strikes if schools resumed in-person learning.” As late as August 2020, she was pushing online learning, and “she only changed her tune when returning in person was inevitable.”

So score one for truth and zero for Weingarten’s lies. But our students still lose the game.

Catastrophic Effects

To return to my previous question: Is Randi Weingarten delusional, or just lying?

I think she is a little of both, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, the catastrophic effects on the education of our nation’s children are the same, whether she’s lying or not.

Kali Fontanilla

Kali is serving as CRC’s Senior fellow, particularly focusing on topics related to K-12 public education. She has 15 years of experience as a credentialed educator working in public and…
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