Acton Institute Powerblog

Your child’s misery is a price the NEA is willing to pay

(Photo credit: Becker1999. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

The National Education Association has released a new report admitting that virtual schooling has subjected America’s youngest and poorest students to “learning loss,” “social-emotional challenges,” and “trauma.” However, the nation’s largest teachers union implies that schoolchildren’s setbacks should rank below the interests of its 3 million dues-paying members, because kids are “resilient.”

The NEA and National PTA surveyed more than 1,300 middle school and high school students about how they have been faring since states banned in-person education. The final report makes for painful reading. Consider this sample of the tortured cries raised by children as young as 13:

“I feel like a Zoom Zombie.” “I used to get better grades before the virus and now I am stressed out.” “My dad took a hefty pay cut and has less in-person work.” “I don’t have friends to talk to.” “I got sick. My mom, too. It was hard because hospital payments were so high.” “I wish it would end and go back to normal again.”

Worse, the NEA adds, “[T]he trauma and disruption of 2020 will play an enduring role in their lives.”

The union proceeds to wave away these complaints by saying that “76 percent [of schoolchildren] agree they are getting a good education, including 74 percent of those who attend online, full-time.” But in a graphic hidden well down the page, the report eventually confesses, “Students report significant academic decline since COVID.” Half of all students who had been receiving a good education no longer are, and the number of children who say they are “struggling” academically has more than tripled:

A 58 percent majority of students say they were doing well academically before the virus; only 32 percent believe they are doing well currently. Younger students and students whose parents did not attend college are the most likely to report an academic decline.

That is, the youngest and most vulnerable children – especially those who are most likely to be low-income – have borne the brunt of the shutdowns. Yet incredibly, the union seems to believe this situation should persist as long as it benefits the NEA’s adult members:

Yes, it’s been difficult. There is learning loss. There are social-emotional challenges. In some cases, there is sickness, economic hardship, or trauma. But students are extremely resilient.

“Resilient” is also the word adults use to describe children of divorce, although research has found “[o]n average, children in married families fare better than children from divorced families.” Too often when adults wish to put their own interests first, they reassure themselves of their kids’ ability to absorb the emotional damage they’re inflicting.

All the educational loss and emotional turmoil caused by suspending in-person schooling might make sense if it were rooted in a scientific basis aimed at stopping the pandemic. However, multiple studies have found – in the words of Will Flanders of the Wisconsin Institute For Law & Liberty – “The number of COVID-19 cases in a particular community bore no relationship to the decision to go with virtual education.” Instead, closure decisions are best predicted by the level of “partisanship and union presence” – that is, anti-Trump sentiment and the power of the NEA.

In the incoming administration, the “union presence” of all organized labor, especially the NEA, will explode.  “For America’s educators, this is a great day,” Joe Biden said in his first speech after being declared the winner of the 2020 election. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” referring to his wife.

The future first lady told the American Teacher Foundation on November 16, “Joe and I will never forget what you did for us” – and her husband has been as good as her word. His leading candidate to replace Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is said to be Lily Eskelsen García, who left her position as president of the NEA this summer. Her main rival is Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Whoever becomes leader of the nation’s education bureaucracy, Biden’s team has indicated the DOE will implement self-contradictory policies that benefit organized labor while harming children. “Biden will make sure that we stop funding for charter schools that don’t provide results,” said Stef Feldman, Biden’s national policy director, in a recent interview.

One would applaud steps toward long-overdue financial accountability for failing public schools. However, the same rules do not apply to public schools which don’t provide results. “The first step, and the critical thing that a Biden administration will do right away is make sure that we are fighting for the funds that our underperforming schools need,” she said.

Failing charter schools need less money; failing public schools need more money.

What accounts for these disparate solutions? Charter schools have far lower levels of unionization – and membership has been falling. “Only 11.3 percent of charter schools have unionized staff,” reports EducationWeek. “That’s down by 1 percent from 10 years ago.”

To be sure, the vast majority of teachers in any school system want what its best for their students. And were this an isolated example, it would be a hasty generalization about the NEA. Unfortunately, it is nothing of the sort. In spite of – or because of – the fact that charter schools deliver superior results, the union has done all it can to squeeze its competitors out of existence. In Oregon, education officials forced online public charter schools to close so that parents could not flee traditional schools, which were closed and unable to provide virtual schooling. (No wonder the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, in its wisdom, states, “Parents must have a real freedom in their choice of schools.”)

Nor is the NEA’s war on charter schools the only way it puts union members’ wishes above children’s education. Two-thirds of teachers (including 62% of unionized teachers) polled by Ipsos in 2018 agreed that “teachers’ unions make it harder to fire bad teachers.” Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, the NEA organized national teacher strikes that deprived children of their education. The NEA organizer who “helped lead the largest walkout of educators in history” reflected on the “#RedForEdStrike” by saying, “This is what a union is about.”

Catering to adults may be what unions are about, but it is emphatically not the telos of the public school system. Public education was intended to serve the nation’s children, not prolong their suffering while telling them to keep a stiff upper lip.

The government-union industrial complex has endorsed the redistribution of public resources from the weak and disfavored to the powerful and connected. This is standard operating practice in socialist nations, democratic or otherwise. Yet few perpetrators have been as unapologetic about their stark self-interest as the NEA.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.