Schools around the country have once again been forced to make tough decisions about returning to remote learning due to the explosion of new COVID-19 infections resulting from the highly contagious omicron variant. Despite a recent poll showing that 56% of parents support the suspension of in-person learning to slow the spread of the disease, a counter-narrative has emerged, pushed hard by the mainstream media, that pits teachers (and particularly teachers’ unions) against parents. Earlier this week, in fact, in New York Magazine, liberal pundit Jonathan Chait defended Nate Silver’s widely criticized argument that likened schools moving to remote learning during a deadly pandemic to the Iraq War and placed the blame on “The Democratic Party’s left-wing vanguard” and teachers’ unions.
Obviously, parents and teachers are not monolithic groups, and a lot of people have understandably mixed feelings about how to best handle an ongoing crisis. But it probably won’t shock anyone to learn that many of the individuals and groups providing data to the media pertaining to the alleged parent/teacher divide on school safety measures are connected to the broader pro-school-privatization, pro-charter-school movement. Chait’s own wife, Robin, has strong ties to the charter school industry, a fact that Chait only seems to disclose when he feels like it. In fact, even The COVID School Data Hub, a “research resource” that has been providing allegedly neutral information on school closures, lists as its donors a verifiable who’s who of the school privatization movement, including the Waltons; the Mercatus Foundation, which is tied to the Koch brothers; the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, which is funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan; and Arnold Ventures, run by hedge fund investor John Arnold.
School privatization has been a goal of many right-wing and neoliberal activists for decades. This is despite the fact that charter schools, which have been touted as a miracle cure for failing (and chronically under-funded) public schools, have consistently been shown to have a mixed record on concrete educational outcomes. It is therefore not surprising that the arrayed forces of charter school boosterism are seizing upon the chaos caused by the omicron variant to once again whip up public resentments toward teachers’ unions.
“[There are studies showing that] charter schools aren’t really worse but they aren’t really better, the only difference is that teachers got paid less,” said Adam Johnson, media critic and cohost of the podcast Citations Needed, who has investigated the history of the pro-school-privatization, pro-charter-school movement in the US—particularly the ways said movement has been astroturfed in the media by powerful, self-serving actors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Johnson believes that, despite this research, the hedge fund managers and billionaires who are behind the charter school movement are still more than willing to use the COVID-19 crisis to call for more privatization.
In an article published on Jan. 10, Johnson explains how Wall Street groups that have been calling for privatization of schools for decades were able to use outlets like The New York Times to pit teachers’ unions against parents after schools once again began discussing prioritizing staff, student, and community safety over continuing in-person learning this year. “[Teachers’ unions] are becoming the scapegoat for months of pent-up frustrations over children’s learning loss from being at home,” Johnson told TRNN.
“It’s a very smart and good tactic because you only need a small, well-organized base. Because people don’t pay much attention to this, but it grabs the media who [like] to focus on these major controversies as if it’s ‘parents versus teachers’ or ‘parents versus public education,’” said Bob Lawson, the Director of Special Projects for In The Public Interest, a nonprofit that studies public services and privatization. “It’s definitely a stressful time for everybody—for parents, for students, for teachers, for administrators—and there is sort of no right answer. So, by ginning up this controversy and funding these groups and sticking operatives in there… they can move their privatization agenda and they can also move their broader electoral agenda.”
“They know there is a really good opportunity here to basically turn the public sentiment against [teachers’ unions], who are making very basic safety demands, and they are making it look like teachers want to do remote learning forever and that a bunch of lazy, greedy unions are hurting your child and keeping them from getting a proper education,” said Johnson. “It’s a more emotionally charged version of what they have been doing for decades… All these issues in education—whether it is underfunding, whether it’s the Coronavirus crisis, whatever it is—are used to redirect all the anger at teachers’ unions, to blame the teachers’ unions. That is what they do no matter what happens.”
Lawson agrees that people who are interested in privatizing public education are using the issue of remote learning and school closures to further their interests. For “the ideologues” who are pushing against schools suspending in-person learning, “part of their overall political strategy is to get rid of unions, and they’ve done a very good job in the private sector, and the public sector is next. They’ve been targeting teachers’ unions for several years now—this is the next step”
Teachers in charter schools have much lower rates of unionization; thus, they have not been able to push for safer working conditions in the ways unionized public school teachers have. Sara, a teacher in a charter school outside of Atlanta who has an immunocompromised family member, has been frustrated by her school’s response to the crisis. “It feels like they are like, ‘You’re going to get [COVID] and hopefully we spread out the amount of people over time so that we don’t have to shut down and we have enough staff to stay open,’” she told TRNN. “We don’t even have a fighting chance at all. I was [thinking]: What if I got all my coworkers and was like, ‘Nobody is going to come in’? But nobody is going to do that.”
In Johnson’s view, it’s actually because of their ability to organize against the often-controversial COVID-19 plans coming from the Biden administration—as well as state and local governments—that teachers’ unions have become such a visible target of media-stoked public ire. “The only reason we are hearing [teachers’ unions] being described in terms of an organized powerful faction is because they are not willing to just sit down and go with the new Democratic party consensus that, from the top down—from the White House, the governors, etc.—has basically been ‘We’re just going to kind of move on and we are not going to do anything else to mitigate this.’”
At the forefront of these attacks is the famed Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), which has been fighting to ensure higher safety standards in their schools against the objections of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Last week the CTU narrowly reached an agreement with Lightfoot to return to the classroom on the condition of implementing some basic safety measures, which included getting the city to provide N-95 masks to all students.
Digital Director and Assistant Press Secretary of the CTU Ronnie Reese believes that Lightfoot has used this recent crisis to try to sow dissension among parents and teachers. “We all understand that we must learn to live with COVID-19, and that is why we are collectively speaking up to ensure that our classrooms are as safe and equitable as possible,” Reese told TRNN. “The mayor continues to put her politics and personal vendettas ahead of keeping our schools safe. And now she wants to create a wedge between parents and teachers to fulfill that goal.”
Lawson points out that Chicago’s previous move to effectively privatize school custodial services has led to many of the safety issues that schools are dealing with today. “Chicago public schools contracted out their custodial services, so they are just a huge, complete mess. So, even under the best of circumstances, the sanitation in the schools is not good,” said Lawson. “The district did not take advantage of the early American Rescue Plan money to redo the ventilation in a lot of the poor schools. So there are teachers, when the temperature has been around zero, thinking about how they are going to have the windows open in their classroom so they can have any ventilation.”
Reese also recognizes that there is a move by pro-school-privatization groups to use the crisis to attack teachers’ unions: “There is a major push to make the issue about everything but safety.”
For those interested in privatizing public services, Lawson explains, COVID has been a golden opportunity. “Privatizers use crises, and they already had in the first month of COVID headlines about how the public sector has really screwed up and the only chance of solving this is through the private sector,” he said. And yet, efforts to “fix” societal crises through increased privatization during the pandemic “certainly [haven’t] worked well in this country, whether with [production and distribution of] masks or anything. Even the initial distribution of the vaccines through CVS and Walgreens didn’t go really smoothly.”
Johnson points to another crisis that was used to push school privatization: Hurricane Katrina. “After Katrina in 2005, these same organizations exploited the crisis to turn New Orleans into a charter-school-dominated district,” said Johnson. “This was a huge coup for these right-wing forces.” With COVID-19, those same forces appear to be taking a page out of the Katrina playbook.
Many of the funders behind the charter school movement, such as the Kochs, the DeVos family, the Waltons, and the Gates Foundation, realized that they would need the Democratic Party to buy into any kind of school privatization effort. “They couldn’t [break teachers’ unions] without basically colonizing the Democratic party,” said Johnson.
Many national politicians, including prominent representatives like Cory Booker, have had close ties with school privatization groups. However, perhaps the most prominent Democrat with ties to charter schools was former Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who even facilitated a screening of the charter school propaganda film Waiting for Superman at the Obama White House in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, school privatization activists have been using the COVID-19 crisis to continue making inroads with the Democratic Party, specifically by trying to sell the line that these closures (and, by default, the unions pushing for them) are bad for Democrats at the polls. Johnson points to the reliance on polling from the Wall Street-funded group Third Way that allegedly proved that Democrats lost the Virginia governor’s race because of school closures. Data from Third Way appeared in multiple stories in mainstream media after that election, even though this polling came from a focus group of only 18 individuals—hardly a robust-enough data set to make such a claim.
Lawson points out that this effort to push against teachers’ unions using the COVID-19 crisis is tied to upcoming legislative battles to privatize the schools. “Many of the places where they are having the biggest reaction to COVID but also to critical race theory are in states that also have big voucher or education savings accounts on the ballots or in the legislature this year.”
Even if they fail at their attempts to capitalize on COVID-related safety policies in schools, this will not be the end of the constant push to degrade public education in America. “The charter school movement has endless pockets,” said Johnson.