The United States has been in a nationwide debate over the opening of schools since the outbreak of COVID last year. The vast amount of scientific evidence that shows that keeping schools closed does more harm than good (especially to poorer and minority communities), was true even before the massive vaccine rollout in the U.S. and it is even more true today. Despite this, the Teacher’s Unions (partly led by Randi Weingarten, who is the head of the American Federation of Teachers) have been quite resistant to reopening schools both before the vaccines and even after it, going as far as opposing vaccine mandates for teachers.
Teachers’ unions are a powerful power broker in the fight over (or more precisely, against) education reform. According to the website OpenSecrets, there are two major teachers unions in the country: The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Between both associations, teachers’ unions have made more than $65 million contributions to overwhelmingly liberal and democrat politicians.
Opponents of teachers’ unions have accused them of trying to leverage their position of influence within the Democratic Party to protect their narrow interests, even if that results in greater harm for American kids across the nation. Teachers’ unions also do not have a great track record to defend themselves, with the infamous example of New York’s “rubber rooms”, where teachers accused of misconduct, even sexual misconduct, would wait for their cases to be heard (which could take many years) while still earning full salaries.
Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, has been trying to paint herself as a fighter for the reopening of school over the last few months, going as far as to say that reopening schools is a top priority for her organization since at least April 2020. However, many have pointed out that she had actually warned the Florida Board of Education against reopening schools in April as it would fuel a rise in COVID cases throughout the state.
The AFT also was accused by the New York Post of lobbying the CDC to include the union’s recommendations on the agency’s guidelines over the school reopening process back in February 2021, with the Post showing emails between the CDC and the AFT where the latter suggested recommendations that were accepted almost word-by-word by the agency. Weingarten has dismissed these accusations saying that the AFT was just engaging in regular advocacy for their members, while the CDC has reaffirmed that such communications are routinary.
School choice advocate and National Director of Research of the American Federation for Children, Corey DeAngelis, told El American that he doesn’t believe the union’s claims. He said that if they have been working for reopening schools then why “public schools in states like California -.with much stronger teachers unions.- were substantially less likely to reopen than public schools in states like Florida.”
He said that the “Teachers unions fought to keep schools closed to use children’s educations as a bargaining chip for their political desires and billions of dollars in ransom payments from the taxpayer, and it worked. Congress has already approved about $190 billion in “relief” funding for K-12 education since March 2020 – and that funding went to states regardless of whether their schools actually reopened in person.”
“Teachers’ unions ignored science and fought to keep schools closed for over a year by fear-mongering and moving the reopening goalposts every step of the way. All seven studies on the topic have found that public school districts with stronger teachers unions were substantially less likely to reopen in person over the past year,” he added.
Who is Randi Weingarten and how has the AFT grown under her leadership?
Randi Weingarten is a New York-born lawyer who has been heavily involved in Teacher Union politics since the 1980s. According to the website Influence Watch—which is a watchdog project created by the conservative-leaning Capitol Research Center think tank—Weingarten worked as a teacher in a Brooklyn High School for six years (1991-1997).
However, she did not work as a full-time teacher for all of those years, with the Village Voice reporting she only worked as a full-time teacher for one full semester in the fall of 1994, while she only worked as a part-time teacher for 122 days between 1991 and 1994 and while records show she worked as a full-time between 1995 and 1997, Weingarten had told the Voice that she only worked as a per diem (substitute) teacher during that time.
In 1998 Randi Weingarten was appointed as the temporary President of the UFT (another teacher’s union) after the departure of Sandra Feldman as their president. She then won the election by the whopping (almost banana republic-like) margin of 86.2% of the vote. She served as the UFT president until she was then elected as leader of the AFT in 2008, where she remains.
Weingarten has been president of at least one teacher’s union for 23 consecutive years, meaning that she has dealt with five different presidential administrations, three Democrats and two Republicans. To put matters into perspective, when Weingarten first assumed the position of Union leadership, Cameron’s Titanic was the highest-grossing film of the year, only 26% of American households had access to the internet, and probably no American had even heard of Afghanistan in years.
She has earned hefty compensation from her job as a labor leader. With Fox News reporting that the AFT paid her more than $560,000 in 2019, according to IRS forms, while she was also accused by the New York Post of receiving a $194,000 “golden parachute” when she left her post at the UFT to lead the AFT in 2008, according to the reports of the UFT to the Labor Department, as reported by the Post.
During her tenure as president of the AFT, the teachers union has gone from spending an average of $838,600 in lobbying efforts in 2007 to a record-high of $1.88 million in 2018, according to the watchdog website OpenSecrets. The AFT has also made significant political contributions to Democratic candidates during Weingarten’s tenure, with the Union spending an average of $2.3-2.4 million donations to Democratic candidates during the electoral cycles between 2008 and 2020.
The AFT has spent millions of dollars to support Democratic candidates all across the board. According to OpenSecrets, in 2020 the organization spent almost $20 million in political contributions, with more than $5.2 million of those contributions going to the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, $4.6 million destined to the Democratic House Majority PAC. Out of the more than $2.4 million “outside expenditure” from the AFT, 62.47% have gone to campaign against Republicans and 37.44% have been destined to campaigns supporting Democrats.
For some, her work and that of teachers’ unions has been clear: leverage power within the Democratic Party, in disregard of the quality of the education they offer: “Teachers’ unions’ bosses are most concerned about their members and their power. They fight against anything that threatens that power – especially when it comes to policies that allow families to take their children’s education dollars anywhere else. They prioritize the desires of a monopolistic system over the needs of students and families,” Corey DeAngelis told El American.
Teacher’s unions have been a significant factor in the fight over education reform for decades, and now they have been in the middle of the battle over reopening schools after the COVID pandemic paralyzed the world in March 2020 and Weingarten, who only barely served as a teacher in the 1990s, has been one of its most effective organizers.
“Fighting to keep schools closed for over a year also revealed that students weren’t the priority of many teachers’ unions. Preventing families from having the option of in-person learning hurt students academically, mentally, and physically. Preventing families from having educational options protects the system at the expense of students,” DeAngelis said.