Here’s how the GOP can get its mojo back: Stand up to teacher unions
Republicans are in trouble. The party is struggling with internal divisions and has suffered a hit in its approval ratings, according to a recent Pew poll.
Adding to their difficulties, the GOP uniformly opposed President Biden’s popular $1.9 trillion handout, the American Rescue Plan; their objections to the bill have failed to impress voters.
Here is how the GOP can emerge from the doghouse: Stand up to the teacher unions by backing school choice. In too many states, union leaders have blocked schools from re-opening, claiming health and safety risks that do not exist. Our children are hurting, falling behind educationally and suffering injurious mental health issues and social deprivation.
Parents are fed up. According to a new Gallup poll, 79 percent of parents want their kids back in the classroom, in spite of the pandemic. For working parents, the figure is 82 percent.
Any politician – Democratic or Republican – who does not seize this moment to rein in the excessive power of our largest labor unions is actively working against our children. They are abandoning in particular Black and Brown youngsters who so desperately need the advantages that come with a solid education.
Democrats, in thrall to the tens of millions of dollars they receive in political donations from the teacher unions, cannot bite the hands that so generously feed them. Republicans can and should own this issue.
Can challenging the teacher unions and fighting to give parents more choices in how they spend their education dollars win elections?
Yes. Allowing parents to choose where their kids go to school is wildly popular, with 69 percent of voters approving of the concept. A proposed federal tax credit that would support scholarships to broaden school choice gains even more supporters, with 78 percent backing the initiative. That includes 83 percent of both Latino and Black voters, and even 77 percent of Democrats.
That response can translate into votes. One group with a history to prove it is the American Federation for Children, which supports candidates campaigning for school choice. In the past election cycle, it and affiliated groups targeted nearly 400 races across the nation, picking winners in 85 percent of those contests. They either got very, very lucky, or they are riding a persuasive issue.
Why take on the unions now? Because the country has witnessed the power and intransigence of the teacher unions as never before.
A recent Rasmussen poll finds approval for teacher unions dropping. Only 29 percent of parents think the unions are a good influence on the country, and 60 percent believe that the unions are “more interested in protecting their members’ jobs” than in the quality of education provided.
When progressive Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Chicago has to fight with the local union in her city to re-open schools, even after meeting their demands, something is very wrong. As Lightfoot told the New York Times, the union would “like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools, but take over running the city government.”
It is also the perfect moment to confront the unions because of the extraordinary amount of funds being sent to schools in Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The bill includes an astonishing $126 billion dedicated to K-12 schools, on top of the $54 billion allocated in the December $900 billion package and the $13 billion included in the CARES Act passed last May.
We are told the funds will go towards helping schools open and addressing the past year’s “learning loss.” But it is an incredible boatload of money, especially considering that last year’s entire federal budget for K-12 was $64 billion and that overall spending totaled roughly $700 billion.
What do taxpayers get in exchange for those funds? School districts must publicly announce a plan for re-opening but are not actually forced to get back to work. Plus, school districts are required to spend 20 percent of the funds helping kids make up what they’ve lost over the past year. Only 20 percent. Where will the balance of the money go? It’s unclear.
As millions have struggled to stay afloat, with businesses failing and employers cutting payrolls, many faced the added challenge of taking care of kids not allowed back in their classrooms. Even when the science showed it was safe, the teacher unions refused to go back to work. Because of their disregard for the children in their schools, many women have had to quit their jobs and instead take on the burden of educating their children.
It has been a nightmare for countless families, and yet President Biden and his Democratic colleagues have refused to weigh in. Democrats depend on not only the tens of millions of dollars that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers give to their side of the aisle, but also the mammoth get-out-the-vote efforts and other mobilizations routinely mounted by the unions’ four-million-plus members.
In the past cycle, teacher unions contributed about $52 million, almost all of which went to Democrats. Consequently, they are one of the largest influence groups in the nation.
Until recently, the public tended to side with the unions, despite the inexcusable failure of so many public schools, especially in the inner city. Parents tend to like and trust their kids’ teachers; nearly everyone wants their children to succeed and rely on our schools to make that happen.
Thus, when union leaders complain that their schools are underfunded, parents believe them and support their calls for bigger budgets and higher pay. If they knew that the U.S. spends on average nearly $15,000 per pupil on K-12 education, and much more in some states (in New York the cost is $24,000, for example), they might feel differently.
Promoting school choice is an uphill battle, given the size and resources of the unions, which oppose any dilution of their monopoly power over our education system. But after this past year, voters will reward Republicans who push for change. The time has come.
Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.
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