School Reopening Decisions Were More About Politics and Power than Safety and the Needs of Families

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for over 55 million K-12 students by shuttering nearly all schools last March. But COVID-19 didn’t break the public school system. In a lot of ways, it was already broken. The past year simply shined a spotlight on the main problem with K-12 education in America: a long-existing massive power imbalance between the public school monopoly and families. 

A prime example is how politically powerful special interests—the nation’s teachers unions—were able to prioritize themselves over the needs of families by holding children’s educations hostage month after month. Emails uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that, on at least two occasions, language suggested by the American Federation of Teachers was included nearly verbatim in the CDC’s guidance on safely reopening schools. These suggestions were not based on science—they were a maneuver to put the union in a better position to keep public schools closed and bargain for more resources from taxpayers.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Families have always gotten a bad deal when it comes to K-12 public education. The good news is that families are now waking up and realizing what many of us have known all along: the school reopening debate is more about political partisanship and power dynamics than safety and the needs of families.

Let’s look at the facts: All seven studies on the topic of school reopenings and union influence have found that public school districts in areas with stronger teachers’ unions were substantially less likely to reopen for in-person instruction in 2020.

My peer-reviewed study coauthored with MIT’s Christos Makridis, for example, found that school districts in states without right-to-work laws were about 11 percentage points less likely to fully reopen in person, a 44% reduction. We also found that a 10% rise in union workers at the county level and a 10% increase in union power—as measured by Fordham Institute’s state ranking of teachers’ union strength—were both associated with around a one percentage point decline in the probability of public schools reopening in person.

These results were robust to models controlling for county-level characteristics such as COVID-19 risk, as measured by recent cases and deaths per capita, the share of Trump voters in the 2016 presidential election, household income, educational attainment and the race and age distributions.

We also found that political partisanship was a strong predictor of reopening decisions, but we did not find consistent evidence that measures of COVID 19 risk were correlated with reopening schools in person.

Several other studies have similarly found that political partisanship and power dynamics were much stronger predictors of reopening decisions than COVID-19 risk. A study published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University found that public school districts in areas with more Catholic schools nearby were more likely to reopen in person. That’s probably because those public school leaders understood that families with more relatively low-cost exit options could vote with their feet. 

The main difference is one of incentives. While private schools consistently fought to remain open, many teachers’ unions fought to keep public schools closed for over a year despite substantial evidence suggesting that schools could reopen safely. Only one of these sectors gets your money regardless of whether they open their doors for business. 

The teachers’ unions caused harm to children academically, socially and mentally by keeping schools closed for so long. That is something parents are never going to forget. Families don’t want to feel powerless like they did this past year ever again, and that’s showing up in the data. 

Three nationwide surveys have found surges in support for educational freedom over the past year. The latest nationally representative survey from RealClear Opinion Research, for example, found a 10 percentage point jump in support for school choice – from 64% support in April 2020 to 74% support in June 2021. Support for school choice jumped by 12 percentage points among parents of children enrolled in K-12 public schools over the same period.

Educational freedom advanced in state legislatures as well. Legislators in over 30 states introduced bills to expand funding students instead of systems this year – and 17 states have already passed at least one of these bills.

Teachers’ unions overplayed their hand this past year. And as a result, it’s safe to say that 2021 will be the year of school choice.

Corey DeAngelis is the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute and a senior fellow at Reason Foundation.

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