Coming face-to-face with a novel virus in 2020 forced industries across the board to show their hands when it came to their capacity to treat their workers with dignity while ensuring their safety. On one end, public health and frontline caregivers were momentarily infallible in the public’s eye as they were volun-told to present themselves as pandemic poster-children; on the other end, retail employees were suddenly rebranded as “essential workers'' who received no hazard pay on top of their minimum wage; somewhere in between existed K-12 public educators.
Unionized teachers are no strangers to criticism. Scrutinized by anti-union commentators for their pensions, allegedly undeserved tenures, and bloated administrations, teachers are expected to continually defend their work and decision making, despite millions of families heavily relying on them for educating, trauma counseling, and fostering their children’s abilities to think critically and thrive.
“Policymakers should not simply assume that investing heavily in teacher salaries is worth the political and economic costs,” asserts the American Enterprise Institute, a Koch-funded think tank. “Most teachers live comfortable middle-class lives, and teaching is not more stressful or time-consuming than the average job. It is more likely that workers in public education are on average overpaid, in the sense that they could not earn as much in the private sector. The most prudent course would be to de-emphasize teacher pay as a focal point of education reform”. Similarly, The Manhattan Institute, another conservative think tank touted as a voice for free markets, argues, “public-employee retirement and health benefits are bleeding dry state and local budgets. Local hiring problems can and should be addressed without granting windfall benefits to teachers whose compensation is already better than adequate."
However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic opened a rare opportunity to dramatically shift this narrative, as families were forced to reckon with the time, money, and dedication spent by their teachers now that their children were learning remotely. The first few months of the pandemic were a honeymoon period for educator appreciation, with the media suddenly praising teachers on par with other frontline workers. News clips, social media posts, and hundreds of memes surfaced with brands and celebrities practically groveling at teachers’ feet. “Dear Teachers: We want to say thank you. We see you working harder than ever to educate our children. To show our gratitude, Draper James would like to give teachers a free dress,” offered actress Reese Witherspoon’s clothing line. Google Doodle went so far as featuring their educator appreciation on Google’s landing page, noting, “As COVID-19 continues to impact communities around the world, people are coming together to help one another now more than ever. Today, we'd like to say: To all teachers and childcare workers, thank you.”
Happening underneath the waves of performative media in Massachusetts, however, was an education movement even more powerful: For the first time since its implementation in the 1990s, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) standardized test was not administered to any grade in in the state — and parents were overwhelmingly thrilled about it.
Educator appreciation at an all-time high, coupled with growing support for high-stakes testing cancelation, presented both an undesirable situation for those intent on dismantling public schools, as well as an opportunity for teachers and their unions to rebuild their relationship with the public. For the past year, it’s become clear that both sides of the table have extracted outcomes from the pandemic to strengthen their agendas; now, the question that remains to be answered is how the short-lived teacher support of the pandemic can remain in the public view to give unionized educators the upper hand toward systemic solidarity.
With these ideas in mind, the focus of this paper is to explore three topics: What has historically caused negative associations with public school educators and their unions; how exactly did the COVID-19 pandemic disrupt this narrative; and what policy-driven initiatives are opportunities to foster long-term common ground?
There are a number of entities at play whose common purpose is to vilify, sully, and hyperbolize the intentions of unionized educators. Corporations, lobbyists, and politicians as high ranking as the president of the United States have made it a nonpartisan call to action — by influencing the public perception of unionized educators while offering well-spun, union-busting alternatives, these entities are unified in their mission to weaken one of the country’s largest labor organizations.
In order to understand how and what has shaped the narrative of public educators and their unions over the last 50 years, it is important to dive deeper into the creation and expansion of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), one of the major driving forces behind public K-12 scrutiny and attempts for union abolition.
ALEC was founded in Chicago in 1973 as an organization dedicated to using corporate contributions to sell prepackaged bills to politicians across the United States. Now composed of 2,000 legislative members and more than 300 corporate members sitting as equals, ALEC’s nine task forces give corporations the opportunity to hold a “voice and a vote” on legislation impacting issues such as criminal justice, environmental policy, and, importantly, education reform.
“A small cohort of conservatives, including activist Paul Weyrich, founded ALEC after Weyrich grew concerned about the stronghold Democrats had on state governments and the powerful national organizations and labor unions supporting them,” writes political columnist Sophie Hayssen, who notes the current public sector ALEC members constitute “nearly one-third of all state lawmakers,” and alumni of the group “are a who’s-who of conservatives, including Senator Marco Rubio, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and Vice President Mike Pence."
The intentions of ALEC were not created in a vacuum. On the political end, the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” act of 2002 is widely considered the one of the largest catalysts toward public education reform by way of increased standardized testing and “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) benchmarks, the scores of both determining a district’s funding and teacher performance.
“Under No Child Left Behind, accountability has hinged entirely on standardized test scores, a single number that has been used to determine whether students graduate or teachers keep their jobs,” wrote then-president of the National Education Association (NEA) Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “The problem is, a single test score is like a blinking ‘check engine’ light on the dashboard. It can tell us something’s wrong but not how to fix it."
Despite little-to-no data illustrating proof of performance improvement within historically under-performing student populations, the mechanisms of NCLB remained in place and were only expanded upon during the Obama administration, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan instituting his Race to the Top (RTTT) campaign.
Under Duncan’s plan, charter expansion, school vouchers, and siphoning funding away from traditional public schools was seen as rewarding “innovative” solutions to whatever they considered problematic (for example, low scores on the standardized tests the government themselves had forced everyone to administer). According to both NCLB and Race to the Top, barriers such as systemic poverty and access to social services were not the driving forces behind allocating federal resources; rather, the onus is on teachers to secure funding for their districts — and the only way to do that is to teach to the test, which under-performing students are continuing to fail.
“NCLB and RTTT solidified the reliance upon student test scores as a condition for increased funding,” wrote education and psychology author Lee-Anne Gray. “While these flagship pieces of legislation relied on components of a capitalist market supply and demand model to produce innovation, they ultimately fostered a climate of toxic competitiveness and anxiety.”
Gray continues. “RTTT further cemented the use of standardized tests with all the racist and classist history it thrives upon. Yet the beneficiaries of the most funds from RTTT were California, New York, Texas, and Florida. In other words, tying student performance on tests to funding promoted competition for funding, and then restricted the bulk of it to just 4 states." In this way, schools with wealthier populations have been at an advantage to receive more federal funding while poor districts have continued to underperform. Nothing’s changed except the perception that public schools and educators are to blame for failing to close the gap.
ALEC has capitalized on this idea and has introduced hundreds, if not thousands of bills over the years in favor of gutting funding for public schools while weakening collective bargaining efforts from unions. On ALEC’s website, they assert that “the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life,” setting the stage for their myriad bills that paint unionized educators as highly unfavorable (Alec.org, 2021).
Efforts have expanded considerably in the last 20 years through a number of bills put forth in several states, including the:
Education Enterprise Zone Act (2015, Milwaukee), creating a voucher program to subsidize private schools with taxpayer money;
Education Accountability Act (2012, Tennessee), intended to allow states to override elected school boards in order to declare schools "educationally bankrupt" and divert funds to private schools;
Teacher Choice Compensation Act (2013, Missouri), requiring teachers to opt out of union contracts in order to be eligible for performance-based salary stipends; and the
Parent Trigger Act (2012, Oklahoma), intended to allow small groups of parents to close and convert public schools into charter schools.
Partnering these anti-public education bills with some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, coupled with federally-instituted plans like NCLB and RTTT driving the narrative for decades, has created a perfect storm for imbalanced messaging. It’s hard to argue with the language ALEC has adopted at face value — what parent doesn’t want “choice” or “innovation” when it comes to their child’s education? Yes, many would agree that students should be equipped with skills like “job readiness.” Most parents would vote in favor of having more power in determining school boards and how their tax dollars are allocated. In this sense, charters and vouchers can seem overwhelmingly appealing, especially if a family’s district is considered under-performing by the state.
Knowing they are competing against a bill-creating machine with a seemingly limitless budget, schools are left to rely on their unions to organize around the issues at hand. And when these unions fight back against what they know are ineffective solutions packaged as opportunities for parental choice, it becomes clear how the public begins to doubt the validity of the union’s perspective.
Now, teachers are exhausting themselves not only staying within the confines of a curriculum developed to simply teach children how to pass tests — they are also having to defend their opposition to the creation of alternative schooling that caused the tests to begin with, while convincing the public that their stance is what’s best for their kids. To do so with local budgets just a fraction of ALEC’s has been, at best, next to impossible.
Consider the sophistication of ALEC’s website compared to those belonging to some of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) locals, some of which have not been updated in the last decade. Rarely do elected officials within locals have time to effectively focus on web development, social media strategy, and public relations; even rarer does a local have capacity to hire a communications manager to combat the barrage of attacks from the opposition with equally compelling language and accessible resources. Instead, public schools are at mercy of their unions and remain in defense, refuting claims and organizing, organizing, organizing.