As Joe Biden took office, the Republican Party had no specific plan to discredit the genial and popular new president, but it did have one clean line of attack: Biden would be too beholden to teachers unions to permit a reopening of public schools. “ ‘Unions Above Children’ is the new motto of the Democrats’ plan to reopen schools,” proclaimed the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
It all made perfect sense. Teachers unions had lavished Democrats with donations and votes, and Biden had repeatedly promised during the campaign to give teachers (including, as he often mentioned, his wife) a strong hand in his education agenda. And indeed, Biden has broadly pleased his party’s left flank. He has given former Bernie Sanders staffers important posts and pushed aggressively for a generous stimulus bill while Larry Summers has wrung his hands from the sidelines. The left, which usually begins expressing its disillusionment within hours of a Democratic president’s inauguration, has instead enjoyed a honeymoon period that has lasted into the spring. On the whole, Biden’s presidency has taken on an unexpectedly progressive cast without the customary intraparty factional strife.
And yet on education, the issue on which most everybody expected Biden to veer left, he has instead swerved right. He has confounded and defied the teachers unions on a crucial policy decision. His choice to prioritize the rapid reopening of schools has surprised and dismayed his friends and his enemies alike.
The first sign that Biden might not follow the script came in late December, when he nominated Miguel Cardona as Education secretary. Biden’s staunchly pro-union campaign rhetoric had created the expectation that he would give the post either to a known union ally or perhaps a union president like Lily Eskelsen García. Cardona was a conciliator who, as commissioner of education in Connecticut, had worked with charter-school directors as well as labor leaders. More important, he had pushed hard to reopen the state’s schools during the pandemic.
As Education secretary, Cardona proceeded to ignore requests from unions — which have long opposed efforts to quantify learning — to waive federal standardized tests for a second straight year. The American Federation of Teachers called this decision “frustrating,” while the National Education Association complained, “Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now.”
And by working to reopen schools quickly, Biden has hurled himself into direct conflict with his putative allies.
The predicament faced by teachers is agonizing: They are being asked to risk their health and that of their family members for the sake of their students. It is the mirror image of the dilemma faced by owners of restaurants and bars, who have often been forced to choose between opening their establishments to inherently unsafe drinking and dining or risking financial ruin. Many states and cities closed their schools and opened their restaurants, despite the opposite advice from public-health experts, because they were following the path of least resistance — restaurant owners lobbying to accept the health risk, and teachers to avoid it.
The wave of school closings has set off what is effectively the largest experiment in school privatization in American history. As publicly provided schooling has pulled back to a deadening procession of Zoom meetings, parents with the resources to do so have filled the gap by hiring tutors, quasi-homeschooling, setting up their own education pods, and enrolling their kids in private schools that have remained open. Children from families lacking these advantages have been left to flounder.
A report from the McKinsey consulting firm at the end of last year found that students of color had lost about three months’ worth of learning in math (twice as much as white students lost) and a month and a half of reading. One Yale study estimated that the school closings would deprive low-income ninth-graders of up to one-fourth of their lifetime earnings. Nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners estimates that some 3 million students, mostly from very poor backgrounds, dropped out of school or failed to engage in remote learning at all.
The left-wing world of education activists and academics who support union positions as a matter of labor solidarity has disputed the premise that the lack of in-person schooling has inflicted any serious pedagogical harm. San Francisco school-board president Gabriela López reassured parents that housebound students are “just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure, and the loss is a comparison to a time when we were in a different space.”
This notion did not pop out of her head but reflects a conviction in broad circulation among education progressives. Arguments long used to dispute the need for education reform have been repurposed into arguments against the need for any in-person schooling. “Don’t Believe the ‘Learning Loss’ Hoax,” warned influential pro-union writer Diane Ravitch. “The frame of ‘learning loss’ also highlights the flawed belief that learning is tightly bound to instructional minutes and synonymous with grading and testing. Yet meaningful learning is rarely ‘lost,’ ” insist education professors Maxine McKinney de Royston and Shirin Vossoughi. “There is no such thing as learning loss,” argued Rachael Gabriel in the Washington Post. “It is not a loss of learning. It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future.”
Parents who had previously imagined their children would have a trajectory into college might not be so sanguine. National union leaders have not advanced such radical anti-education arguments, but these statements reveal the intellectual ecosystem surrounding them: one in which acknowledging the theoretical desirability of a return to school can seem downright moderate.
As they have tried to dismiss the harm of closing schools, teachers unions have emphasized the danger of in-person instruction. And while some risk exists, mounting evidence has shown the risk is small, and states that have reopened in-person schools, like Florida, have not seen the surges in cases that some people feared. In February, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky bowed to the clear findings, asserting, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.”
In March, the CDC revised its guidelines to reflect the “latest science on physical distance between students in classrooms.” In a letter to the Biden administration, AFT president Randi Weingarten strongly disapproved of the new guidelines. “All of a sudden, because we can’t squeeze in every single kid if it’s six feet, miraculously there’s now studies that say three feet are fine,” complained Weingarten, apparently suggesting the CDC had concocted the finding rather than basing it on extensive research.
Maintaining six feet of distance among students made a return to in-person teaching impossible. Classrooms simply don’t have enough room to fit all that space between desks. The CDC’s abandonment of the arbitrary and groundless six-foot distancing requirement robbed the teachers unions of their most powerful weapon to stave off full-time instruction.
Biden probably did not set out to begin his presidency by fighting one of his most organized blocs of support. But he has wound up doing so because he stayed true to the best tradition of American liberalism: adapting flexibly to new information.
He moved left on fiscal policy, ignoring debt scolds’ fears that inflation or interest rates will spike, because the data has pointed in that direction. On school reopening, he has moved right (if you can call restoring a public service “moving right”) for the same reason. Franklin D. Roosevelt called his guiding philosophy “bold, persistent experimentation.” Today’s liberals might call it following the evidence.