Fight Over Opening Schools Pits Teachers Unions Against Democrats

Democrats and teachers unions, staunch allies for decades, suddenly find themselves at odds over the politics of COVID-19 and schools.

Exhibit A of this fracturing political relationship has been the city of Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, has engaged in a standoff with City Hall over the opening of schools.

The union has claimed that the city’s COVID-19 protocols are insufficient to protect students, teachers, and staff and, earlier this week, approved a “remote work action” that Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot labeled an illegal strike. She responded by locking teachers out of online classrooms and filing an unfair labor practices complaint.

But while the Chicago standoff might be the most high-profile example of the fraying relationship between the Democratic Party and its longtime ally, there are others. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat, signed legislation late last year that greatly expanded the eligibility of substitute teachers amid staffing shortages.

The move passed the GOP-controlled state Legislature on a near party-line vote, as Democratic lawmakers sided not with the governor but with the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union that vehemently opposed the law.

And in New York City, another Democratic-run city, officials have pushed back against union demands to close schools to in-person instruction.

Corey DeAngelis, the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, an education nonprofit group that promotes school choice policies, attributed the emerging fights between teachers unions and the Democratic Party to the rise of parent activism.

“For a long time, the only real special interest group in K-12 education was the teachers union,” DeAngelis told the Washington Examiner. “But the government school unions have finally overplayed their hand and awakened a sleeping giant: parents.”

2021 proved to be a watershed year for parent activism, as widespread school closures, mask mandates, and controversial curricula led parents to mobilize and push back against local school boards and officials.

The COVID-19-related school closings, in particular, proved to be a point of contention between teachers unions and parents, in many areas serving as a catalyst for parent organization. And it proved to have electoral consequences when Republican Glenn Youngkin, running on a parents-rights-focused education platform, won an upset victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race last year.

“Politicians from all parties will now have to consider the needs of families, not just the demands of the teachers unions,” DeAngelis said. “Politicians would be wise to side with parents going forward because they care about their own children more than anyone else, and they’re now paying close attention.”

But while DeAngelis said he thinks that the emerging rift between the unions and Democratic politicians is a result of the growth of parents as a special interest group, one longtime educator and anti-union advocate sees cynical politics at play.

“In my opinion, what we’re seeing is political theater,” said Rebecca Friedrichs, a longtime public school teacher and author of Standing Up to Goliath: Battling State and National Teachers’ Unions for the Heart and Soul of Our Kids and Country.

In particular, Freidrichs suspects the showdown between Lightfoot and the teachers union may not be what it seems.

“[Lori Lightfoot] was put in office by the teacher unions, and she typically walks lockstep with them,” Friedrichs said. “So, I feel like this is political posturing, like she knows nobody’s going to want to vote for her.”

If the political breakup is indeed genuine, Freidrichs said she sees a “wonderful” potential and that she hopes it would spell the death knell of government unions.

“If [politicians] see that the winds are changing and people might not vote for them, you know, if they don’t stop walking lockstep with the unions and they want to stay in office, then yes, I could see them changing their strategy in order to stay in office,” Friedrichs said. “But do I think they really care about the children? No. Do I think they really want to do what’s right for the community? No. All I have to do is look at their records.”