In Randi Weingarten’s florid telling, far-right activists are resorting to unchecked propaganda and “Big Lies” to mislead parents, undermine trust in teachers and financially cripple public schools in hope of replacing them with a universal, unregulated voucher system. In a breathless essay for Time magazine, Weingarten, head of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, blames “dark money-funded extremists” for an orchestrated campaign to weaken public education, “undermining our democracy and further eroding America’s middle class.”
In New York, we call this chutzpah.
American Federation of Teachers chief Weingarten has ample reason to be concerned about the decline in trust in America’s public schools, which have lost more than 1 million students in the past two years. But no one bears greater responsibility for that hemorrhage than Weingarten herself.
My AEI colleague Nat Malkus just released an exhaustive set of student-enrollment data covering the vast majority of US public-school systems. It shows that nearly 1.2 million children exited public-school systems in the 2020-21 school year, including more than 80,000 in New York City.
This year some districts recovered while others continued to shrink. The difference was not due to a right-wing campaign to undermine public schools, as Weingarten claims. It was how those districts responded to COVID.
Districts that returned to in-person instruction more quickly have seen enrollment recover; those that stayed remote the longest continued to lose students. “I thought we’d see a relationship with in-person learning, but I didn’t think it would be this strong,” Malkus notes.
If Weingarten wants to talk “Big Lies,” there’s none bigger than her own bald-faced lie, repeated endlessly in interviews and on social media, that she “worked to reopen schools safely since April 2020.”
Never mind that the union’s affiliate in Washington, DC (enrollment down 4% since the 2019-20 school year), held a sickout strike to stop schools from reopening. Never mind that the AFT’s affiliate in Chicago (down 7%) claimed demands to reopen schools were “rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” Never mind that the union in Los Angeles (down 9%) insisted “reopening safely” included union demands for a moratorium on charter schools, wealth taxes and Medicare for All.
Never mind that Weingarten noisily insisted that she wanted kids back in school even while lobbying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention behind the scenes to slow-walk a return to full-time, in-person instruction.
The full cost of this calamity is becoming clear. A Harvard study released Thursday concluded that shifts to remote or “hybrid” instruction during 2020-21 had “profound consequences for student achievement,” especially for those attending high-poverty schools, where they were “a primary driver of widening achievement gaps.” The report ominously concluded: “If the achievement losses become permanent, there will be major implications for future earnings, racial equity and income inequality, especially in states where remote instruction was common.”
I’m not unsympathetic to Weingarten calling out the rhetorical excesses of conservative activists and culture warriors. But she’s doing public education and teachers no favors with her refusal to take parent discontent over critical race theory and gender ideology in schools seriously, attributing it to disinformation and saying almost blithely that “this is how wars start.”
Her new “Big Lie” is painting a picture of parents as mere dupes of extremists and ideologues, which she claimed in a recent interview is a “base vote strategy” by Republicans.
Weingarten is either misreading the moment or in deep denial. For decades, polls have consistently shown Americans trust Democrats to do a better job on education than Republicans. But a new NPR/Marist poll finds parents with children under 18 in their households — those with the clearest view and skin in the game — now favor Republicans over Democrats for Congress by an almost a two-to-one margin: 60% to 32%.
Teachers, too, have good reason to be concerned about Weingarten’s tin ear and habit of stepping on rakes. For nearly half a century, Gallup’s “honesty and ethics” survey has shown grade-school teachers among the most trusted professionals. At the pandemic’s start in 2020, trust in teachers had jumped to 75%. Today, it’s 64%: still strong but a troubling all-time low.
As long as a majority of our children attend traditional public schools, it’s in the interest of every American for them to perform well and to be trusted by parents. For reasons known only to her, Weingarten appears determined to drive faith in public education into the ground.
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former New York City public-school teacher.