You’d think Democrats — who, by any measure, should be the last party standing — would catch a break once in a while simply by existing in objective reality. Instead, they somehow wind up repeatedly gifting the GOP powerful talking points, easily translated into bite-sized slogans. Teacher’s unions are now being put in the unenviable position of making difficult decisions, rife with unintended consequences for already overburdened parents and a craven opportunity for mayhem by ever opportunistic Republicans.
I’ve served on the executive boards of several National Education Association local unions, including as vice president and even president the last couple of years before retirement. I am unabashedly proud of what my colleagues and I accomplished during that time, especially negotiations with school boards representing community taxpayers, which can become adversarial. One of the things we consistently tried to remember that kept our meetings mutually respectful, was that most of us were parents and community members, as well. We could easily relate to those parents and felt we were in this together.
Mindful of that, I find myself wincing each time a teacher’s union is scapegoated by Republicans and feel even worse at their loss of standing in the communities they serve. The two-year pandemic, exacerbated by the emergence of the omicron variant, has sent schools reeling, and coupled with the federal government’s failure to deliver the promised test kits in sufficient numbers, put teachers in an untenable position. Even a cautious choice like remote learning remains controversial, hugely difficult for parents and easily manipulated by a political party steeped in fabrication.
That kids belong in school has been one of the very few points of agreement. Everyone hates remote learning, no one more than teachers. My former colleagues report extraordinary challenges with online learning, including scheduling difficulties, reading struggles and under achievement. But most of all, they miss the connection of seeing their students in person. However, when the health and safety of those students and school personnel are put at risk by an infection surge, lack of test kits, or staffing shortages, difficult decisions must be made.
Any agreement becomes dust in the wind when Republicans see political advantage. Why else the suddenly advocacy for the very students whose needs they’ve largely ignored once they were born, no longer an easily propagandized fetus, which plays so well in evangelical circles. It certainly isn’t children’s needs motivating the GOP, just another opportunity to scam already suffering families by doing what they do best: amplifying parental fear and worry, blaming Democrats, even for things that don’t exist.
The Virginia governor’s race is a case in point, turning largely on Critical Race Theory, nonexistent in the state’s curriculum. When Democratic candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe said he didn’t believe parents should tell schools what to teach, GOP candidate Glen Youngkin pounced, making parental rights the centerpiece of his campaign, leading to an upset win. However accurate, Democrats paid the price for McAuliffe’s remark which prompted Republican dreams of what the New Republic called the path to “forever rule.”
Before Virginia’s vote count was certified, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pledged to roll out a “parent’s bill of rights” as the central plank in his party’s effort to retake Congress later this year and the White House in 2024. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to anoint the GOP the “parent’s party,” blithely ignoring their hostility to legislation supporting families, including unanimous opposition to the American Rescue Plan.
Conservatives’ long-standing opposition to the social safety net, unions in general, and teachers’ unions in particular, has fueled their ongoing effort to put the blame on teachers for underachieving schools: a convenient, easily manipulated and extremely effective strategy, despite the fact it, too, is a manufactured Republican myth. A simple fact check finds the opposite to be true: unionized schools actually improve the quality of education, reducing dropout rates while helping ensure ineffective teachers — who make everyone’s jobs more challenging — are dismissed during the probationary period.
The “Parent’s Party” fails to acknowledge any of this, certainly not a childhood poverty rate (for which the GOP bears significant responsibility) nearly five times that of Finland, where unions are strong and schools consistently lead the world in student achievement. Massive tax cuts benefiting the wealthy came at the expense of education funding and health care for children as pithily dismissed by former senator Orrin Hatch: “We don’t have money anymore.”
Teachers and schools remain a favorite target of right-wing hysteria over everything from evolution, to homosexuality and gay rights, feminism, accurate depictions of race in America and the enduring favorite of “implanting leftist ideology” into their students. With 2024 aspirations, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis plans to thwart this incursion through his “Stop WOKE Act,” ostensibly preventing “smuggling of inappropriate content” into schools by allowing parents to “inspect curriculum” and sue schools teaching CRT and just about anything else they don’t like.
Most lawmakers have advanced degrees from elite colleges so they understand the long-term benefits of an excellent education, which flies in the face of invariable GOP hostility toward public education, pandering to their conservative supporters, including outright rejection of accurate depictions of science, human sexuality or American history in the classroom. In a perfect Republican scenario, “Government schools” are vilified, funding is limited, learning suffers and children fall behind, opening the door to taxpayers footing the bill for private, often religious, charter schools accountable to no one, providing indoctrination as much as education.
While it’s difficult to take seriously a party invested in “The Big Lie,” we should remain acutely aware of the damage Republicans are willing to inflict on the country to gain the upper hand. Schools and teachers have become a far too easy target, vulnerable to attack precisely because of their commitment: educating children, an awesome responsibility in the best of times. They transcend hardship, take their work seriously and turn out the kind of well educated, clear thinking citizens, capable of knowledgeably participating in democracy.
The GOP’s worst nightmare.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.