Summary: All government unions are profoundly harmful, but the most damaging are the teachers’ unions. Since 2020, they have lobbied and agitated successfully to keep kids out of schools—and keep their members receiving a paycheck despite not showing up at work. They have forced children to wear masks for eight hours a day despite the absence of scientific evidence in favor of this policy. They have inflicted sex education, often in graphic and offensively inappropriate detail, upon fourth graders. They have begun implementation of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which teaches children to segregate themselves based upon race or the color of their skin. But the shock of COVID-19 and the resulting overreaction of the education establishment so upset and disarranged the education landscape that things once thought impossible have now drifted into the range of possibility.
All government unions are profoundly harmful, but the most damaging are the teachers’ unions. Since 2020, they have lobbied and agitated successfully to keep kids out of schools—and keep their members receiving a paycheck despite not showing up at work. They have forced children to wear masks for eight hours a day despite the absence of scientific evidence in favor of this policy—and they have done so while their leaders party and frolic, maskless, with the likes of Barack Obama. They have inflicted sex education, often in graphic and offensively inappropriate detail, upon fourth graders. They have begun implementation of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which teaches children to segregate themselves based upon race or the color of their skin. Martin Luther King, who dreamed of a world in which our children are measured by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, must be rolling in his grave.
I’ve always said that a good measure of a society is how well it treats its most vulnerable citizens. When we started closing schools, we said that we care more about the perceived threat of COVID-19 to adults than we care about the mental health of children.
The NEA and AFT
Between them, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have nearly five million members. Their national associations report annual revenues of approximately $370 million and $200 million, respectively, which are drawn overwhelmingly from dues paid by those members, and that doesn’t include the hundreds of millions in revenue that their local affiliates collect.
The Bigfoot lobbyists of the NEA and AFT want more more more when it comes to spending, as lobbies invariably do, but they are frequently found in a negative posture, for no one hates the idea of reform quite as much as a teachers’ union.
Vouchers, charter schools, education savings accounts, merit pay for teachers…you name it, the teachers’ unions are against it. Anything that promises to empower parents and raise the quality of public education is like poison to these characters. AFT president Randi Weingarten & Co. fear reform the way that an unsightly wart fears the dermatologist.
The NEA’s office in Washington, DC is just up Sixteenth Street from the White House, an indication of how much proximity to power means to these “educators.” Although it once prided itself on being a “professional association,” by 1976 the increasingly politicized NEA was ready to make its first presidential endorsement. Despite his campaign pledge to streamline the federal government and sharply reduce the number of agencies, Jimmy Carter made a whopping exception for the Department of Education.
The establishment of the US Department of Education (DOE) in 1979 was largely a payoff to the National Education Association, which vigorously supported Carter in his successful 1976 campaign for the presidency. Curiously, the rival American Federation of Teachers opposed the creation of the DOE—not out of any high principle, but because the AFT feared it would be cut out of the NEA-dominated action.
Substantial opposition to this new department existed among key advisers within the Carter administration, who regarded it as just another superfluous bureaucracy. Much of the liberal press was cool to the idea; the Washington Post and New York Times editorialized against it as “a cynical payoff to the NEA.”  But Congress had warmed to the idea. As historian Gareth Davies noted in his account of education politics, the previously apolitical NEA had contributed to the campaigns of 350 congressional candidates in 1978, over 80 percent of whom had won.
The union paid good money to buy these politicians, and most of them stayed bought. The House of Representatives approved this bureaucratic monstrosity in 1979 by a tight vote of 215–201, and President Carter signed it with an embarrassing puppy-dog eagerness. A tough reelection loomed, and the Carter campaign was now “a wholly owned subsidiary of the NEA,” in the harsh verdict of Democratic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Not that the union disagreed with Senator Moynihan’s characterization. After the DOE was born, an NEA official bragged, “We’re the only union with our own Cabinet department.”
Teachers are paid based on the number of years they’ve worked at the job and the number of credits they’ve accumulated in continuing education classes. Their skill as teachers, and the amount of learning the children in their care have done, has absolutely zero effect on their salary. Should the school district be forced to tighten its belt, the outstanding young teacher will get a pink slip while the lazy deadwood protected by tenure keeps collecting a paycheck.
In protecting their worst members, government unions such as the NEA punish the talented and push one and all toward the mediocre middle. Their goal is to keep everyone at the 50th percentile, which in practice means dragging down the best and shielding the poorest performers from suffering any consequences from their bad work.
Ideally, the worst government employees—say, the bottom 5 percent—would be fired, and the best would receive raises and other rewards. Unfortunately, the contracts negotiated under collective bargaining do not allow this. They operate on a one-size-fits-all principle that is always and everywhere the enemy of creativity and justice.
No wonder a public school principal in New York City acidly observed of the AFT president: “Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.”
This is unfair to good teachers, and it is a crime against children. The ballyhooed education reform movements that have arisen for the last forty years, from a 1983 blue-ribbon panel’s A Nation at Risk report to President Barack Obama’s modest proposal to expand charter schools and teacher evaluation, have mostly run aground for one overriding reason: the power of teachers’ unions.
In the next installment, the NEA and AFT wield enormous influence on the public schools.
This article is abridged version of chapter 4 of Freedom Is the Foundation: How We Are Defeating Progressive Tyranny by Aaron Withe (Post Hill Press, 2023). The citations were renumbered for this version. Subheadings and images were added for the web version.
 Gareth Davies, See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007), p. 240.
 Ibid., p. 234.
 Roger Freeman, “Educational Tax Credits,” in The Public School Monopoly: Education and the State in America (San Francisco: Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981).
 Linda Chavez and Daniel Gray, Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics (unpaginated e-book, 2004).
 Terry M. Moe, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2011), p. 2.