The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teachers unions, on the rise, poised for gains if there’s a Biden administration

Teachers in New York City protest school reopening plans, calling for more coronavirus testing in the schools. (AP/John Minchillo)
Teachers in New York City protest school reopening plans, calling for more coronavirus testing in the schools. (AP/John Minchillo)

After many years of playing defense, teachers and their unions are on the political march.

The country’s two large teachers unions are working an aggressive ground game to elect Democrat Joe Biden president, and if they succeed, they are likely to benefit from the friendliest administration in at least 20 years.

At the same time, they are exercising enormous influence in school districts across the country that are trying to open buildings for in-person classes. Unions, fearful that schools are not yet safe, have successfully halted or slowed reopenings in several communities and influenced the terms in others.

In Chicago, the teachers union challenged the city’s reopening plans in arbitration. In the District of Columbia, the union has resisted efforts to bring even small numbers of elementary schoolchildren back. Nearby, in Fairfax County, at least one teachers union says school should remain remote for the rest of the school year. And in New York City, the union delayed the opening of school for several weeks while it negotiated terms with the city.

The unions’ mantra has been that teachers want to go back to in-person school, but only when it is safe. In many cases, they have argued it is too soon to reopen, even in places where coronavirus infection rates are low and where administrators say going back is imperative. And while administrators do not always need unions’ permission to open buildings, if teachers do not show up, the plans will fall apart.

“We are influencing, as we should influence, what happens in our schools. I know it’s characterized as we’re keeping the schools closed. I know it feels and sounds like that,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, which, with 3 million members, is the nation’s largest union.

Politically, she added, “we’re starting to stand in our power, lift up our voices, and we’re being heard.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, objected to the notion that teachers are flexing their political muscle. Teachers, she said, are simply fighting “to keep themselves and their kids safe.”

Their position has been fueled, unintentionally, by President Trump, who has demanded that schools reopen for the good of the economy as well as students. That message injected politics to the debate, and drove many Trump opponents, who see his position as reckless, into the union camp.

But the unions have infuriated others, including some parents, who say opening schools is critical, especially for vulnerable children who are struggling or not showing up at all for online classes. They point to data that shows that so far, open schools have not seen a flood of coronavirus infections.

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Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group that has clashed with teachers unions, said the unions have “hijacked” the process, even in communities with low rates of transmission.

“Teachers unions have made this their political line in the sand,” she said. “The science doesn’t back it up.”

Both union presidents said that Trump drove teachers to take a tough line by demanding campuses open and then failing to provide the resources needed to make it safe.

Campaigning for Biden

There was no doubt both teachers unions would endorse Biden in the general election, and both are working to elect him president. The AFT says it has made 270,000 calls across 4,500 volunteer shifts this month, more than double its goal. The NEA says 230,000 members have participated in the union’s pro-Biden campaigning, which it says is a 45 percent jump from 2016.

The shift from a Trump administration to a Biden administration would be stark. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s central mission is to boost alternatives to traditional public schools, which she derisively refers to as “government schools,” and she slams unions as working against the interests of families.

But unions tangled with Trump’s predecessors, too, albeit less fiercely. President George W. Bush delivered the No Child Left Behind law and a focus on accountability that unions say punished teachers for deep-seated educational challenges.

The Obama administration, with Biden as vice president, called for teacher evaluations tied to student performance on tests and encouraged the growth of charter schools, all policies the unions opposed. At one point, the head of the NEA called for Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s first education secretary, to resign.

As a presidential candidate, though, Biden has backed away from his support for charter schools, now insisting that they meet higher standards to qualify for federal support. And he has proposed sharp increases in education funding, without any of the Obama-era overhauls that unions hated.

He has promised to appoint an education secretary with public school experience. He says he’ll be held accountable by his wife, Jill Biden, a teacher who is also a member of the NEA.

Most immediately, Biden has vowed new emergency funding to help schools safely reopen, something unions and other education groups have spent months lobbying to get.

Longer term, he is promising to triple spending for the $15 billion Title I program, which targets high-poverty schools, and said some of the money should help raise teachers’ salaries. Biden has promised billions more for special-education services; funding to double the number of school psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers; and new money for school infrastructure.

Asked if the Democratic nominee was pivoting away from the Obama administration’s approach, Biden’s policy director, Stef Feldman, said, “It is certainly the Biden plan.” She noted his promises to increase federal spending and said he was proud to have the teachers unions’ support.

“They will continue to be a partner as we work directly with educators to have an educator-centered and a student-centered education policy,” she said.

A departure from Obama

The promises are concerning to Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which backed the Obama administration’s accountability agenda. Jeffries supports the new funding but wants to see accountability measures attached that will push schools to improve student results.

“If the federal government is going to be making these investments, of course we have to demand a return in terms of student outcomes,” he said. For instance, he would like to see additional Title I money tied to luring teachers to hard-to-serve schools.

Jeffries also objects to some of Biden’s promised new scrutiny for charter schools, including a requirement that public school districts certify charters are serving the neediest students. Teachers unions oppose charter schools, which are typically not unionized, saying they drain students and funding from traditional schools.

Biden was not the only Democratic presidential candidate to back away from charter schools during the primaries, widely seen as an effort to court teachers unions. It was one of many policy areas where the party marched steadily to the left.

Nonetheless, Duncan, Obama’s longtime education chief, says he and Biden traveled the country together and were “always on the same page.”

“He will have his way of going about things and his way of having impact, but I just know he cares as much about kids being successful as President Obama did,” he said.

Rodrigues, of the National Parents Union, is annoyed that Biden appears ready to give teachers unions everything they want. That said, she is strongly supporting his campaign, saying her interests extend to many other issues. She hopes he will take a more skeptical tone toward the unions as president.

“I’m grateful it’s just a platform and it’s not the actual work that I think Joe Biden will do if he’s elected president,” she said. “Pandering to the teachers unions and giving them what they want and making sure they feel like they are running things is what you need to do to win it, and so that’s what he’s doing to win it.”

Unions are betting he means what he says and truly has pivoted from his time with the Obama administration.

“He has learned,” said Pringle, of the NEA. “He’s been around for a minute. So he has learned from all these administrations and what fundamentally needs to change.”