Khulia Pringle would seem an unlikely critic of the local Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. The St. Paul native embarked on a teaching career in the hope of improving a school system that she saw as failing her daughter. By the time she finished her training in 2014, she had grown so disillusioned with the public school system that she took a job with an education reform group, helping to recruit and place hundreds of tutors in schools across the state.
While she shares the union’s emphasis on pushing for higher pay and smaller classrooms, the self-described liberal education activist says the federation’s three-week strike last month provided final confirmation of her worst fear: The union and public education system place a higher priority on serving their own needs than they do on serving students and parents, 60 percent of whom are minorities.
“Students are just coming back to some sort of normalcy—they’re already behind,” she says. “These strikes aren’t asking for any of the things that will solve the disparities between black and brown and indigenous children.”
Pringle is part of a growing chorus of parents and educators across the country who are challenging the public education establishment. While much attention has focused on opposition by conservative parents and red state lawmakers to the teaching of critical race theory and gender issues, resistance is percolating among blue state parents like Pringle who have long championed teacher unions and progressive school boards.
The second front in the battle over public education is clear: From San Francisco, where voters ousted several left-wing, union-endorsed school board members in February, to Chicago, Massachusetts, and other blue enclaves, parents are demanding reform.
Teachers enjoyed immense support in the early days of the pandemic, but their unions’ reluctance to return to the classroom, even as scientific findings established children’s resilience against the disease, appears to have alienated a substantial number of parents.
In December 2020, Gallup found that three-quarters of those polled rated teachers as ethical and trustworthy, setting an all-time record since it began asking the question. When Gallup asked the same question in December 2021, the results were startling. In the space of 12 months, support for teachers fell about 15 percent, to “a point or two below their previous all-time lows,” according to the pollster. A 2021 survey from nonprofit think tank Education Next found the public held less favorable views of the education system than other public services. Americans nationwide were twice as likely to give police forces A or B grades than they were public schools—this despite the backlash against cops in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The sagging poll numbers reflect a mounting challenge for public school teachers and their unions, which have long counted on public support when they have gone out on strike to secure better pay and working conditions.
“That trust has been so eroded because of what parents have gone through for the past 18 to 20 months, so now parents have to question what they are being told by teachers,” said Keri Rodriguez, a Massachusetts mother of five. “There’s been so much overreach and they have asked for so much grace from parents across the country; well, unfortunately we have watched teachers respond with not much effort in remote learning.”
Rodriguez is an even more unlikely opponent of teachers’ unions than Pringle. She made a career in the organized labor movement, rising to an executive position at labor giant Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and served as chair of the Somerville Democratic Party. But even as she rose in progressive circles in the most progressive of enclaves—a city where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 89 percent to 10 percent—she began to question the party’s alliance with teachers’ unions.
“Only in the education system are parents treated as if we should be passively going along and allow others to not only run the system but run it in a way that’s beneficial to adults,” Rodriguez says. “We started to see how kids are getting the short end of the stick.”
Critics see this dynamic as particularly pronounced in the labor movement’s embrace of lockdowns and remote learning. The results could be seen in Minnesota, where high school graduation rates dropped for the first time in 12 years in 2021. In a normal school year about 90 percent of Minneapolis students participate in statewide proficiency tests. But in 2021, only 48 percent of district students took the tests—significantly less than the 80 percent of students who took the tests statewide. Those Minneapolis students motivated enough to take the tests from home performed poorly, with only 35.5 percent considered proficient, down from the district’s 42.2 percent proficiency rate in 2019. Test scores during the pandemic also revealed growing racial disparities in achievement. Proficiency rates in math among black and Hispanic children plummeted by 34 percent in 2021, compared with a 19 percent decline among white students.
The results in Minneapolis mirror those in other major school districts that resisted the return to the classroom. Washington, D.C. public schools enforced some of the strictest lockdowns in the country. Performance among its students, some 84 percent of whom are minorities, plummeted during the pandemic. Racial disparities in proficiency were particularly acute. White children fell 4 percent in literacy proficiency as only 70 percent met district benchmarks. By contrast, only 28 percent of the district’s black students met benchmarks—a nearly 40 percent decline. Black students are now less likely to meet literacy standards than Hispanic students, many of whom come from households where English is not the primary language, even after those students experienced a 29 percent decline in proficiency during the pandemic.
Using Union Tactics Against Unions
Rodriguez is now using tactics that the labor movement taught her, trying to mobilize against some of the strongest and most politically connected labor behemoths in the country after founding the National Parents Union. NPU now partners with more than 600 parent advocacy groups and activists across the country maintaining chapters in every state on a $4 million budget. By contrast, the American Federation for Teachers and the NEA represent nearly 4.7 million educators nationwide. The unions have never been more active than during the pandemic. The two dominant behemoths spent about $196 million on political activities and lobbying in 2020 and 2021, a 55 percent jump from their spending in the two years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal labor filings.
Rodriguez acknowledges NPU is fighting “an incredibly powerful juggernaut.” Much like the labor movement, the National Parents Union operates on a local level through activists, including Khulia Pringle, the St. Paul teacher who now serves as a top official with the Minnesota chapter.
Pringle’s daughter graduated in 2015, but the mother resolved to fight for other parents in her community against an education system she believes values its own interests over those of children. When the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers launched its strike in early March—one that came on the anniversary of the district’s post-COVID re-opening—she felt compelled to act.
MFT’s 1,500 members sought higher pay, smaller classrooms, and greater “mental health support” for students struggling in no small part because their schools had been closed.
Pringle felt that the strike should be used “to achieve equity,” beyond what she saw as the union’s lip service to that goal. Instead, she contended, it addressed “none of the things that parents are leaving the district for,” adding: “Reform has been an uphill battle because white liberals will march in the streets when a black man dies, but not when a black child can’t read.”
Pringle would spend all of March organizing food drives and arranging childcare for parents who found themselves at the mercy of the federation as it barred 30,000 children from the classroom.
Ultimately, MFT’s tactic worked, insofar as it reached a tentative agreement with the school district on March 25, winning concessions on class sizes and support staff pay. The superintendent and several other school officials resigned. But there are signs that could prove a pyrrhic victory.
Minnesota public schools hemorrhaged students in 2021, as Local 59 fought to preserve remote learning and rallied for mask mandates in the classroom. Private and home-school enrollment statewide surged by 6.6 percent and 34.2 percent, respectively, between 2019 and 2021. Public school districts, meanwhile, saw a 3 percent drop statewide driven in large part by a whopping 12.7 percent decline in Minneapolis.
While there has been no opinion polling among Minnesota residents during the strike, there are signs that the federation has failed to galvanize the public: A petition to support the strike had garnered 6,800 backers by the time it concluded—well short of the union goal of 12,800. MFT did not return RealClearInvestigations’ requests for comment.
The Minneapolis strike came on the heels of a one-week work stoppage in Chicago that left more than 350,000 students back at home after a prolonged public school shutdown. The Chicago Teachers Union has effectively employed strikes or the threat of strikes to win concessions from local leaders. Former mayor Rahm Emanuel believed parents would be outraged by the disruption when CTU went on strike in 2012, but he granted concessions after seeing them support the union. A similar pattern played out when teachers again went AWOL in 2019.
Many parents today, however, have cooled on Windy City work stoppages after witnessing the ill effects of prolonged remote learning.
Ryan Griffin’s oldest child had just started kindergarten when the 25,000-member CTU went on strike in October 2019. He supported the strike, though he did not realize at the time that the month leading up to it would represent the high point of his child’s learning. The second grader has now spent the majority of his student life behind an iPad. Griffin’s kindergartener has never known a classroom without masks. When the CTU decided to stage another strike to open 2022, Griffin and many other parents were less sympathetic to labor leaders.
In the past “We’d be out there supporting teachers in the picket lines,” says Griffin, who comes from a proud union family. But over “the last two years a schism has formed between parents and teachers: We saw the pandemic used as leverage to get other things. I think those incentives got misaligned.”
If workers go on strike against Honda, the 360,000 CRVs the automaker sold in 2021 would keep humming right along. Schools do not hum along in such disputes. Griffin and the parents of the nearly 350,000 children saw classes cancelled for five days after the union pushed for tighter COVID restrictions amid the rise of the omicron variant.
An Inbox Filled With Death Threats
“The frustrating thing is parents on the picket line have said pay teachers everything they need because they are essential. In the last two years we have seen teachers claiming that they are not that essential,” Griffin says. “Historically we’re on the same side, but the pandemic sort of whipped everything.”
Griffin founded the Chicago Parents Collective in 2021 to foster community among parents trying to navigate the pandemic. The group has grown to more than 1,800 members that span 70 percent of the district’s schools. His simple message attracted massive support from parents, but it also brought him into the crosshairs of activists, who saw him not as a concerned father, but as a political opponent. His inbox filled up with death threats. His bosses received calls for his firing. “We’re basically a parent Facebook group—there’s no political agenda … but parents get labeled every name under the sun to discredit you and your motivations.”
Union officials insist they are unfazed by recent headlines of parental revolts. NEA did not respond to request for comment, but an AFT spokesman said, “Far more parents of children in K-12 schools approve of how unions are handling the pandemic than disapprove,” pointing to polls showing broad public support throughout the pandemic.
But rhetorical shifts from AFT president Randi Weingarten reflect at least some appreciation for the criticism that the American education system has faced. Behind the scenes, Weingarten helped craft shutdown policies and remote learning advisories for the Centers for Disease Control in the early days of the Biden administration. She was unapologetic about the need to maintain stringent public health standards in schools, even as those same protective measures were abandoned in many states and localities for dining, tourism, and sporting events. By the summer of 2021, however, Weingarten began to hedge, attempting to take credit for the reopening of K-12 schools and in-person learning.
A sizable number of American voters have dismissed that rhetoric. While a plurality of voters, according to a poll from Education Next, were indifferent or unsure of whether unions helped or hindered efforts to reopen schools, those who did take a position were overwhelmingly negative. One in three said teachers’ unions hindered reopening—three times higher than respondents who thought they helped the effort. The demographic most likely to blame unions for impeding in-person learning was teachers. More than 40 percent of educators polled told Education Next that labor leaders interfered with a return to the classroom, a startling rebuke of Weingarten’s public claims.
Early studies appear to corroborate the suspicions of those teachers. Michigan State University researchers found that school districts without a collective bargaining agreement were twice as likely as their unionized counterparts to reopen. Among Michigan’s 800 public and charter schools, shutdowns were more closely tied to unionization and Democratic control than they were to the number of COVID cases.
Corey DeAngelis, national research director at the American Federation for Children, says the resistance to reopening is more about power than safety. It is only a matter of time before frustrated Americans pull back the curtain and hold teachers’ unions accountable.
“Data consistently showed this involuntary form of remote instruction hurt many children academically, mentally, socially, and physically—and that schools could reopen safely. Schools should have been the first places to open and the last places to close, yet that didn’t happen,” DeAngelis says. “Here we are, nearly two years later, with some power-hungry teachers unions pushing for more closures that hurt kids and their families.”
Public health experts had been warning of a mental health crisis among America’s youth in the lead-up to the pandemic. While the CDC found that suicide rates fell by 2 percent in 2020 overall, those gains masked the toll taken on children. Adolescent suicide attempts jumped 31 percent in 2020, fueled in part by the social isolation caused by the pandemic-driven lockdowns. The suicide rate among boys between the ages of 10 and 14 jumped 13 percent.
“This is life and death for our children,” Rodriguez says. “Parents started to see the disastrous effects of socialized isolation on mental health and seeing less school spread than community spread. … They saw teachers unions fight science.”
Not just parents, but a small percentage of teachers, too, have come to reject continued lockdowns and overly stringent COVID-19 protocols. Greg Dolan, a Pittsburgh area educator so fed up with mask policies that he ran for the school board—narrowly losing in a deep blue suburb—said he was frustrated with the level of influence unions exerted over the classroom at the expense of children.
“As a teacher who began his career in Covid, I have seen heroic efforts from my fellow teachers in managing everything thrown at us these past two years. However, I have also watched in shock as those who claim to speak for teachers constantly put themselves and their personal interests ahead of children,” Dolan says. “The strikes, unreasonable demands on students, and selfish ultimatums undermine our reputation—and it’s time rank and file teachers disavow these actions.”
Dolan is the exception among the education establishment. Most teachers in America have enthusiastically embraced teacher strikes. About 90 percent of Chicago teachers voted to authorize the January strikes, while 97 percent of Minneapolis educators did the same.
Rebecca Friedrichs, a veteran California educator who once went to the Supreme Court to sever ties to her teachers’ union, said the strikes in the wake of reopening have exposed labor leaders and made “the brazen political goals of the unions clear as day.”
“They’ve been using you and your kids for far too long while terrifying the best of teachers and undermining our educational system,” Friedrichs says. “Unions deny your children a great education while lining their pockets with taxpayer dollars.”
This article was written by Bill McMorris for RealClearInvestigations.