History never quite repeats itself. But if we don’t learn from it, then it can quickly rhyme in hideous couplets. First, tragedy. Then, farce. Last year’s coronavirus school closures were an unspeakable tragedy for schoolchildren. After the first viral panic, these closures were not driven by the prevalence or danger of the disease, but rather the power and political self-interest of teachers unions.
This dynamic was once again on display this month after teachers with the Chicago Teachers Union unilaterally refused to show up for in-person instruction on the pretext of concerns about the omicron variant. Chicago Public Schools was forced to cancel five days of class. School could only reopen after officials gave major concessions to the union.
The lesson from this tragicomic farce is that we must call a spade a spade. America does not really have “teachers unions” in the traditional sense — that is, democratically representative entities promoting the collective will of schoolteachers. Instead, these “unions” are structurally, operationally, and essentially cartels. These K-12 cartels were in the business of taking students hostage for ransom well before COVID-19. Yet the past two years of naked self-interest and hypocrisy from those who claim to be the guardians of our nation’s children have been laid bare for all to see. And it must not be forgotten.
The reason it had been difficult to learn before is because the K-12 cartel aims for a monopoly on moral language. During the first round of school closures, for example, the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted : “The push to re-open schools is rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny.” (Hey, what isn’t these days?) In service of protecting its own power and influence, the K-12 cartel has adopted the leftist obsession with framing everything in American life through an “equity lens.” “Equity” is a remanufactured Trojan horse word intended to smuggle the ideology of critical race theory and other such cultural radicalism into schools. A “lens” refracts light so that you see objects differently. When you can only see the world through an “equity lens,” which blends every object into a grand conspiracy of so-called “racism,” “sexism,” and “misogyny,” what you see is what you’ll get.
Take off that lens, and you can see their real game clearly. The doctrine of “anti-racism” provides infinite subsidy for educational failure. Everyone who questions teachers unions and activist educators can now not only be falsely called “anti-teacher,” but also “racist” or “sexist.” It’s telling that around the time the Chicago union account tweeted that missive, one of its leaders was actually seeing the world through the lens of her sunglasses: Yucking it up on a beach in Puerto Rico even as she directed her union flunkies to take any possible tack to continue pushing remote schooling.
An appropriately critical lens, of course, would recognize the irony as “her truth.” After all, living it up in a tropical paradise while holding children hostage in their homes, claiming to protect the vulnerable while actually oppressing them, is the purest essence of cartel boss behavior.
During this strike, the Chicago K-12 cartel tweeted a ransom note: “To other parents and guardians of the city, we want you to know that when you put your children in our care, we put their well being and safety first. We fight for your children when they are our own, because when we teach them, they are.” (Emphasis added.)
Parents trust schools to act in loco parentis. In their place, under parental influence. And before the cartel acquired its critical power level, schools used to reinforce rather than subvert parental authority. During the first slew of closures, some leftists on Twitter tried to level a charge of hypocrisy against conservative parents for objecting both to critical race theory and shuttered schoolhouses. The meme went something like: “What? You want schools to reopen so your kids can go back to being indoctrinated?” But memes only work when they communicate a flash of truth through wit. And the fact of the matter is that a great many parents don’t want their children going to Chicago Public Schools: The district lost about 10,000 students in enrollment last year compared to the year before.
But a great many more are often trapped in districts such as CPS, thanks to cartel-style monopolistic policies championed by the unions and their minions. The district’s recent teacher strike is just the latest example of how the K-12 cartels put themselves first, and students second.
Sometimes, that power asymmetry reaches truly grotesque proportions. Last year, an investigation by the Chicago Public Schools inspector general substantiated allegations against 13 separate adults working at a single school within the district “for either committing or covering up sexual misconduct dating back more than two years.” Among the allegations was a case of a teacher having a sexual relationship with a student (who was 18) and another in which a teacher stands credibly accused of grooming an underage student in order to have sex with them when they reach legal age. Monstrous as such allegations are, the inspector general report made clear that all along the way, even as the public investigation into the school was ongoing, administrators at the school abetted or ignored such behavior by their teachers and subordinates. Rather than be punished or held to account, several were promoted or simply moved to different schools. Such practices, the Chicago Tribune found in an in-depth investigation titled “ Betrayed ,” play out district-wide.
Even Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a far-left radical who has compared herself favorably to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was moved to oppose their recent strike. “There is no basis in the data, the science, or common sense” to close Chicago’s schools, she said this month, going so far as to state : “I will not allow [the union] to take our children hostage.”
Commendable words, but even so, her negotiating leverage was pretty limited. The union got much of what it wanted, and its boss mocked Lightfoot as “ relentlessly stupid ” to boot.
There’s a clear reason the cartel can speak and act like this. In his 2011 book Special Interest , Terry Moe described teachers unions as the Democrats’ main organizational bulwark: a ready-made apparatus of individuals and networks that can be utilized to further the political and electoral ends of the party. Yet that power dynamic has fundamentally shifted. Today, the cart pulls the horse (er, donkey).
Even President Joe Biden realized upon taking office that shuttering schoolhouses ceased being a vicious yet effective political tactic and became a massive vulnerability. Biden and his jumble of inept mouthpieces have repeatedly emphasized the administration’s desire to keep schools open. And yet, the Biden CDC revised its guidance last May to make school reopening more difficult based on input from teachers union leadership. Further documents show that Biden’s HHS was instructed to reconsider reopening guidance “in the broader context of teacher contract negotiations.” In one department email obtained by Fox News, HHS official Michael Baker told colleagues four days before the guidance was released that he had just gotten off a “call with the White House and Department of Education regarding the school reopening guidance,” explaining that “we have some homework assignments.” Even as he was telling the public how important it was to reopen and keep open schools, behind the scenes, the president was letting American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and other cartel bosses push him around.
These stories got little play in legacy media and in the Beltway. Instead, we got fawning pieces such as that in the New York Times last month by opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg that was (originally) given the ludicrously out-of-touch headline: “Can Randi Weingarten Save Public Schools?” In attempting to cover the fight over keeping schools open, while also trying desperately not to run afoul of the teachers unions they love and fear, the corporate media and education journalists have displayed as much command authority and competence as the police officer shouting amid the riot at the end of Animal House: “ Remain calm! All is well! ”
Liberal media, which includes nearly all education reportage and trade outlets, are finding themselves in the same spot as the Democratic Party and its elected officials. They’re all unable or unwilling to buck the teachers union cartel meaningfully on any substantive controversy, even as continuing to back the unions’ positions becomes ever more politically, societally, and even morally untenable. Just as the teachers union and public school establishment has cemented control within schools, thwarting efforts at school choice and parental choice at every turn, so has it accreted a similar stranglehold on the political and intellectual Left.
Taken together, they run an ideology laundering operation, which profits immensely from its monopoly on redefining and weaponizing powerful words. Teachers unions make broad, categorical declarations about the scourge of “systemic racism” and the necessity of viewing all life through an “equity lens.” Meanwhile, black and brown and low-income students have disproportionately suffered from school closures that AFT and the NEA continue to demand. Union outfits proclaim any move to reopen schools is rooted in “systemic racism,” even as they continue to restrict efforts of black and brown parents to send their children to open schools or decry those who choose to home-school.
The K-12 cartel’s employment of critical race theory concepts and jargon in its push for a never-ending stay-at-home paycheck has provided further illustrative evidence of just how hollow, cynical, and empty the Left’s message of “wokeness” is. Nevertheless, CRT and the “anti-racism” of Ibram X. Kendi and the “white fragility” of Robin DiAngelo will continue to be taught in most public schools as the one true doctrine. “Teach the Truth,” the cartel cynically insists. So, it is time for a change. It is time to stop talking about “teachers unions.” They are not “teachers unions” in any meaningful, efficacious sense. Start talking about and treating them as the K-12 cartels that they are.
Republicans won a battle when the Supreme Court declared in Janus that unions could not automatically appropriate teachers’ salaries. The First Amendment rationale was good and just: Teachers should not be compelled to fund political activism that they disagree with.
But we should do more. State legislatures should establish annual opt-in for teacher union membership, a process that should involve reading and acknowledging recent union political resolutions before agreeing to join. After all, doesn’t it make sense to know what it is you’re signing up for?
Recent political resolutions and declarations adopted by teachers unions include those that state all white teachers are so inherently and indelibly racist that they need “white fragility” training. Resolutions that inform them that they’re part of a cartel that seeks to dismantle “cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism,” and other such tripe tropes. Whether these resolutions would be as popular with your average teacher as they are with the activist zealots and paid consultants who work to pass them at annual association meetings may be doubted. But it’s not an accident that shortly after conservative media drew attention to these resolutions, the National Education Association took them offline . And it’s not an innocent development that the NEA issued a letter to social media companies asking them to cancel criticism of critical race theory.
America was founded on a political philosophy that viewed the family as the primary, pre-political unit of society. Today, the monopoly-minded education cartel is in thrall to an ideology that seeks to disrupt the “ Western Prescribed ” nuclear family. To replace it with a “village,” which it insists must raise their children. It isn’t a matter of political rhetoric, but rather philosophical clarity, to call the so-called “anti-racist” K-12 cartel “anti-American” and “anti-family.”
How can statesmen chart a course back home? That must start by consulting the map of our Constitution, a document assented to on the understanding that parents must be free to associate according to their conscience, to send their children to a school that does not try to subvert their moral authority. Universal school choice must serve as a north star.
History never repeats itself exactly. But it will continue to rhyme, partly dependent on our ability to learn the lessons that it teaches. Any hope for an American family-led counterrevolution must begin by declaring independence from false language. And an alternative vocally championed in school board meetings across the country.
This fight must be fought with words. Citizens can fight by calling out teachers unions, which no longer operate for or toward the public trust, as the parasitic cartels they have become. This education cartel must then be “disrupted” and “dismantled” through the democratic process. A constitutional counterrevolutionary struggle should be waged until schools become truly safe spaces for children to flourish and prepare for the “lived experience” of American life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The K-12 cartel delenda est.
Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on education reform, specifically K–12 and early childhood education.