Democrats: Maybe we should stop supporting school closures

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

There seems to be a groundswell taking place among Democrats that’s shaking things up in the ongoing liberal civil war. I’m not talking about the infighting between progressives and moderates, though that one is still simmering away also. This story is about the rupture between nervous Democratic elected officials who are frightened of doing anything to upset the teachers’ unions and those who understand that supporting school closures engineered by those unions will probably cost them their jobs in November. Yesterday, John examined the story of Rebecca Bodenheimer, a liberal journalist from Oakland who found herself the target of cancel culture after complaining about school closures and moving her child to a private school in response.

But that’s just one person, right? Well… maybe two if you count the story of author Angie Schmitt, who found herself in the same situation. Unfortunately for both the Democrats and the teachers’ unions, those two cases may not be outliers. The Associated Press published a story yesterday analyzing what is clearly turning into a trend around the country. They introduce their coverage by talking about the reprehensible Chicago Teachers Union and how the Governor of Illinois and the Mayor of Chicago (both Democrats) came out against the union and demanded that the schools return to in-person learning. Even Jen Psaki got in on the action. And now there are Democratic strategists who have realized that their loss in the Virginia governor’s race last November wasn’t an aberration. Ralph Northam was a canary in the coal mine.

Nearly two years into a pandemic that shows no signs of waning, Democrats are speaking out more forcefully against COVID-19 school closures, recognizing a rising anger among parents worried that their kids are falling behind. But in doing so, Democrats risk angering some teachers unions, which are advocating for more protections for educators amid a surge in the wildly contagious omicron variant and whose support helped get Democrats elected.

The political peril for Democrats became clear after their candidate lost the Virginia governor’s race in November to a Republican who focused on education and slammed the prior year’s school closures. Now, in what already promises to be a tough midterm election year, with frustrations mounting among their base over stalled voting and spending legislation, they may face real trouble over an issue that directly affects Americans’ lives.

It’s a sticky situation for many of these Democrats. Ticking off the teachers’ unions has traditionally been seen as a career killer. They support Democrats almost exclusively and they donate a lot of the money they collect in dues to Democratic election campaigns. Giving them the cold shoulder can result in a primary challenge that might put some Democrats on the unemployment line.

But at the same time, the one demographic that politicians from either party can’t afford to lose consists of parents. They may break down along partisan lines when it comes to other issues, but if an elected official is viewed as endangering their children or breaking up the familial structure, that’s going to be the end of the line. The AP report summons up one example with Megan Bacigalupi, a former official at a San Francisco non-profit who quit her job to go home and help her children try to master the remote learning process. She went on to form a parents’ group that lobbies to keep schools open. She also recently switched her party registration from Democrat to independent, despite never having voted for a Republican once in her life until now.

Even American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten seems to be starting to see the writing on the wall. She hasn’t condemned the Chicago Teachers Union (yet), but when she was asked for a comment, she praised the more than 90% of public schools that are open for in-person learning. She also begged Democrats and the members of her union to remember that “Omicron is the enemy, not each other.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise coming out of this debate was a comment from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky yesterday during a hearing in the Senate. She actually testified that “schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close.” Given the CDC’s previous tendency to follow the politics rather than “The Science” if it supported Biden’s agenda, that quote will make it harder for other Democratic officials to argue in favor of school closures.

If this trend continues, what will the teachers’ unions do? They aren’t going to turn around and just start shoveling money to Republican candidates out of spite. They can either suck it up and keep donating to Democrats who will no longer support their worst impulses or bow out of the political scene and slide toward irrelevance. I think we can guess which path they’ll take.