NEAL MCCLUSKEY, CATO INSTITUTE
It’s a state of education affairs many people likely thought, and certainly all hoped, we would not return to. But as holiday breaks come to an end, millions of families are once again facing online‐only instruction as schools try to cope with the Omicron strain of COVID-19.
Are teacher unions to blame for this disappointing return to cyber‐education?
Some folks, especially on the Right, seem to think so. And they have a case. Teacher unions, which represent the largest, most easily organized interest group in education, certainly fought hard to keep schools closed to in‐person instruction in many places last school year, and are battling in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City to keep kids home, at least temporarily, now. Union leaders’ primary fear is almost certainly that teachers will be exposed to COVID-19, but they may well see COVID as a serious threat to kids, too. Both are certainly understandable, but whatever their motives unions bring massive political power to bear that parents – diverse and hard to organize for sustained political warfare – simply cannot match.
But here’s the thing: Many parents almost certainly want their kids home, too.
I haven’t found any polling likely to include Omicron, but back in late‐July, early‐August, when COVID transmission was much lower than today but Delta was rearing its ugly head, a National Parent Teacher Association poll showed that many or most public school parents wanted their children either entirely online or in hybrid schooling rather than fully in‐person. Depending on when parents were questioned – before or after CDC guidance was released telling vaccinated people to resume masking and other protective measures – desire for entirely in‐person learning dropped from 58 percent to 43 percent.
There is little reason to believe, with all the bad news about Omicron’s lightning spread (and even with good news about its relative severity) that support for in‐person schooling is not either the same or lower than in early August. In other words, keeping schools closed may well be a popular opinion with a majority of parents. If so, it is hard to blame unions if public schools go virtual for a while.
But that does not let the unions off the hook. What our COVID experience, as well as polling, has shown is that diverse families have diverse needs and desires, including myriad ways of balancing the educational effectiveness of in‐person schooling and the health risks of COVID-19. To best meet those myriad needs and desires we need an education system that offers diverse options. And that means choice – money following children to educational arrangements of their families’ choosing, not delivered directly to a single government school or district.
For decades, no one has fought more doggedly against choice than the teacher unions, doing much to put us in the low‐options condition that has bitten us so hard since COVID-19 broke loose in March 2020. Especially frustrating is that a choice‐based system would be better for teachers, who would themselves have more options about how they teach: More online. More small‐group. More hybrid. It would also benefit their bottom lines to cease being subject to monopoly employers.
Should unions be blamed for school districts starting the 2022 online? No.
Do they bear significant responsibility for an education system with too few options? Yes they do.