Empower Parents, Not Union Leaders

Empower Parents, Not Union Leaders
(Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP)
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Earlier this year, the New York Post revealed that the American Federation of Teachers – one of America’s two national teachers’ unions – had heavily influenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its drafting school reopening guidance. Last month, Fox News published “internal” emails that show the National Education Association (NEA) – the other national teachers’ union – pressuring the Biden administration to reverse its masking guidance a mere two days after the White House stated that masks were no longer necessary in schools. The White House capitulated.

This degree of influence on our politicians by a special-interest group and campaign donor should be shocking and unacceptable. Unfortunately, the control of teachers’ unions over politicians is equally pervasive at the state level. The recent bending of Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf to union demands is a key example.

Last May, Pennsylvania voters approved state constitutional amendments limiting a chief executive’s emergency powers. The message was clear: sweeping and endless mandates at the stroke of the governor’s pen are not acceptable.

On July 27, Wolf announced that he was not considering any statewide school mask mandate. Alison Beam, his acting secretary of health, reiterated a few weeks later, “Given the constitutional amendment that many of you supported, it is going to be extremely difficult to move forward with any of these requirements in a school setting.” 

But the Pennsylvania State Education Association – an NEA affiliate – was having none of this. The NEA quickly began urging every school district to require masks. When that didn’t work, PSEA turned up the heat with a PR campaign, eventually sending Wolf a public letter on August 30 demanding a statewide mask mandate. A day later, Wolf relented, using the health secretary’s legally dubious authority rather than his own.

Regardless of whether you believe masking children is the right thing to do, this chain of events illustrates how much power teachers’ unions hold over some politicians.

Wolf has received $4 million from teachers’ union PACs. His flip-flop, acceding almost immediately to the demand from his largest campaign donor, tells you all you need to know about his governing philosophy.

Pennsylvania school districts, parents, and elected officials have filed a lawsuit challenging the mandate’s legality. Others are protesting or openly defying the order. The arguments are heated because people sense that their input about how schools treat their children is being ignored.

Unsurprisingly, this tumult is having policy consequences. Parents are demanding more educational options, and policymakers are responding. Recent polling by the American Federation for Children shows support for educational choice at an all-time high.

Lawmakers in numerous states are expanding existing programs or creating new ones that let funding follow students to whatever educational option best fits their needs. These moves empower parents, not union leaders, to make decisions about their children’s schooling.

The flurry of school choice legislation is happening in Pennsylvania, too.

House Bill 1, recently introduced by State Representative Andrew Lewis, would create universal educational opportunity accounts modeled after West Virginia’s new program, expand Pennsylvania’s successful tax credit scholarship programs, and protect pandemic learning pods. State Senator Ryan Aument has proposed the creation of education savings accounts that let parents “choose where” to use their children’s education funding. State Representative Natalie Mihalek plans to introduce legislation that allows eligible families to receive Pandemic Relief Grants to ensure students get the safe educational options they need. State Senator Judy Ward aims to establish the Education Opportunity Account Scholarship Program for Exceptional Students. And State Representative Martina White has proposed expanding access to the commonwealth’s existing tax credit scholarship programs to aid low-income students and schools in high poverty areas.

Parents are coming to realize just how little control they’ve had over school policy due to the influence of teachers’ unions. Politicians should vote for these new bills and help re-empower parents – regardless of the nasty emails (or campaign checks) they may get from teachers’ union leaders.

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