Public education’s two afflictions: COVID-19 and teachers unions

Americans believe K-12 education is so important that laws almost everywhere require children from about age 5 to 17 to attend school five days a week, eight months a year. Public school teachers insist that they are essential workers. Remote learning during the pandemic has proved that in-person teaching, especially for the lower grades, is essential to learning, which includes socialization. And three Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, say “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

But United Teachers Los Angeles, a union adept at ideological opportunism, says: First things first. Among the preconditions for its members’ returning to classroom teaching, for which they are being paid, the UTLA wants a moratorium on authorizing charter schools (these are public schools, emancipated from micromanagement under collective bargaining agreements that unions negotiate with school districts), a state wealth tax, defunding the police and Medicare-for-all.

Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute notes that although primary and secondary schools get about half of local government spending — the national average: $14,000 per pupil — today “only about a third of students nationwide are attending school in-person each day.” This is unhealthy. Hess says, “As early as last spring, it was clear that when isolated from their peers, students were increasingly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and mental-health emergencies.” In Britain, the Spectator quotes the children’s commissioner, who worries about “hidden harms” — 2-year-olds who “actually have never been in places where there are other kids and they’re scared stiff of speaking to other children and are very withdrawn.” And 16-year-olds who have spent “those two years in bed, in front of a games console or whatever, how do you start to go forward from that?”