Corey DeAngelis, national director of research at the American Federation for Children, joins us to discuss the damage that nearly two years of school closure has done to our kids—and how the teachers unions must continue to be held accountable for protecting their own interests instead of the interests of our children.
Tim Doescher: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher and this is Heritage Explains.
Clip: A Fox News alert and a nation so divided, there's even one area where even far left Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Republican governors are finding common ground. They believe kids belong in school and closing class is not backed by science. President Biden saying the same thing. He said it during this program yesterday live during a COVID briefing at the White House. That makes it all the more enraging to a lot of parents in the Windy City as teachers there are refusing to show up to class until they get what they want.
Doescher: It sounds amazing, liberals like President Biden and Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago are speaking out against teachers union attempts to close schools amidst rising COVID-19 cases. But it hasn't always been like this. To recap, here's a short montage. Let's start with Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Chicago in the initial surge of cases in March of 2020.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot: Given what we anticipate as the continued upward trajectory of a virus spread, I'm announcing now that Chicago Public Schools will be closed.
Doescher: But here's Mayor Lightfoot recently on January 7, 2022 during a similar upward trend in COVID cases.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot: When the teachers union engages in a unilateral legal strike, I understand parents' anger. I've been hearing from them nonstop. They're angry. And I understand that because they feel like their voice, their choice has been taken away from them. And I've got to be the advocate for those parents. And that's why I've drawn a line and said enough is enough. We're no more unilateral actions. We've got to resolve this at the bargaining table, but the union doesn't get to speak for every single person in the school community and usurp the role of the parents and the students.
Doescher: Similarly, here's presidential candidate Joe Biden in July of 2020.
President Joe Biden: Forcing education of students back into a classroom in areas where the infection rate is going up or remaining very high is just playing day dangerous.
Doescher: And here's President Biden on January 4, 2022.
President Joe Biden: Look, we have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants. We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That's why I believe schools should remain open.
Doescher: Interesting contrast, especially given that cases are practically no better than they were when they initially made their pitch to keep schools closed. Now, maybe they were in favor of closing schools because they didn't have all the materials they needed, or maybe it's just because we didn't have a vaccine or maybe it's because they listened to teachers unions. Regardless of all those factors, cases are still surging around the country and many show that schools are likely not a big contributor to the rise of those cases.
Doescher: So if politicians on the left are saying we should be open, why are the powerful teachers unions still pursuing a narrative that schools must be closed? On this episode, we talk with Corey DeAngelis. He's the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, and also a very good friend of The Heritage Foundation. He recently wrote a piece with Heritage Fellow Lindsay Burke about the damage nearly two years of school closure has done to our kids and how the teachers unions must continue to be held accountable for protecting their own interests and not the interests of our children. But first, this.
>>> If you're tired of high taxes, fewer healthcare choices and bigger and bigger government, it's time to partner with the most impactful conservative organization in America. We're The Heritage Foundation and we're committed to solving the issues America faces. Together, we'll fight back against the rising tide of homegrown socialism and we'll fight for conservative solutions that are making families more free and more prosperous, but we can't it without you. Please join us at heritage.org.
Doescher: Corey, we've done episodes on teachers union issues in the past, especially since COVID. We've documented fairly well the impact school closures are having on kids and, folks, actually we'll link to those episodes so you can see them. You can listen to them in the show notes, so please log on for that. It's telling a very chilling story, Corey, about the damage to our children and thus the damage to our future. So top of mind, as we kick this thing off, can you give us just a quick explanation of how we got where we are right now, who started this lockdown, keep kids out of school mentality, who's keeping it going and why?
Cory DeAngelis: Well, you kind of answered your own question with bringing up the teachers unions at the beginning. They have pushed school closures. And in fact to date, there are now at least five studies, some of them are already peer reviewed, finding that places with stronger teachers unions were much more likely to close their public schools, even after controlling for a ton of demographic characteristics. But you didn't even need a peer reviewed study to figure that out. You saw the headlines of the Chicago Teachers Union Board member vacationing in Puerto Rico in person while railing against going back to work in person.
DeAngelis: You saw in the same cities, the private schools were fighting to reopen, whereas the public school teachers unions were fighting to remain closed. Even in Florida where they got their schools open pretty early, it was despite the best efforts of the teachers unions. They actually, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit against Governor DeSantis to try to prevent them from going back to work in person. It's just that they didn't have as much sway in states like Florida, so they were able to open the schools a little bit earlier in those places.
DeAngelis: But it's not because the teachers unions didn't try. They even had a hearse driving around the capital, I believe, at one point in Miami or in the city of Miami, at least. To all of these theatrics to try to push to keep schools closed, and I don't think it's because there's bad people in the system per se, I think it's because of the system itself and the messed up set of incentives that are baked into it. With every other business, if you're not open, you might have to shut down for good. The private schools understood this.
DeAngelis: They had to cater to the needs of customers or else they'd be able to vote with their feet and take their tuition dollars elsewhere.
Doescher: You said in the piece, which we'll link to, some 200,000 students are going to be impacted by school closures here. Who are these students and where are they?
DeAngelis: Well they're in places that have stronger teachers unions. The latest controversy has been about the Chicago Public School System ...
Doescher: Yeah. You mentioned that.
DeAngelis: ... Where they have hundreds of thousands of kids locked out of schools because the teachers unions refused to work in person and had plenty of barriers to reopening the schools placed in their demands and lots of demands that aren't included for other businesses. And again, I think it's because they don't have school choice in places like Chicago to a large degree where parents can't vote with their feet and exit to provide bottom up accountability to the public schools to actually provide what the families want.
DeAngelis: In Chicago, they spend over $27,000 per kid per year now. Private school tuition on average is less than half of that in Chicago. It's only about $11,000, according to Private School Review. Why not give even half the money to the family? They'll be able to find a lot of open alternatives. And it's just a problem. I mean, look at the bailouts that the Chicago Public Schools got in 2020 to 2021. They $2.8 billion. That's about $8,500 per student. And they were even trying to keep schools closed again in 2022, I mean, two years into this.
DeAngelis: This all started with two weeks to slow the spread. It's become two years to flatten a generation of kids. It's harmed kids academically, socially, mentally, even physically. Kids have gained weight. Obesity rates for children have increased nationwide. Mental health issues increased even larger. According to a peer reviewed study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, places that had more closed schools, those kids reported higher upticks and mental health issues.
Doescher: Let's talk about safety because that is the reasoning that we're given for why we need to close these schools down. It's what they say. Are we, are teachers less safe if kids are in person?
DeAngelis: We have no significant evidence to suggest that school reopenings or keeping schools open increases community wide transmission or risk of mortality. And look, you don't need the scientific evidence to understand this. We have tons of scientific data to support the idea that schools are some of the safest places in the community, and they should be the first things to open and the last things closed. But it's just common sense. The same people who are saying that they can't go back to work are going to shop at the grocery stores and the grocery door workers have been there the entire time.
DeAngelis: They're essential. We should deem teachers essential at the same time. The thing is, and look, the private schools are able to figure it out from the beginning. The daycare centers were able to figure it out from the beginning. The private sector, grocery stores and other businesses were able to figure it out from the beginning. But again, I'm not blaming the people in the public sector. I'm blaming the public sector's messed up set of incentives that exists, not the people. And the only way to fix that in my view is to fund the student directly and empower parents to choose alternatives.
DeAngelis: That's the only way to align the incentives of the system to be about the kids and the families.
Doescher: This isn't the first time that we've heard about a lot of money going to a student, but also a really nice coffee machine being put into the teacher's lounge. Where did that money come from, kind of thing.
DeAngelis: Well, and there ...
Doescher: This is a symptom. This is just another symptom of an out of control system.
DeAngelis: We saw it during 2020 as well and 2021. The way that I put it before is that underperforming private schools shut down. Underperforming government schools get more money. And we saw that with the holding children's education hostage with the school closures. Because again, in the past, they were able to say, "Look, we have low test scores because we're not funded enough. We need more money to get to academic outcomes." Now they said, "Well, we're not open because we don't have enough money," even though they already had tons of money.
DeAngelis: And then at this point, you have places like Chicago that were still fighting to remain closed in 2022, two years after two weeks to slow the spread started. And they got billions of dollars in government bailouts for supposed COVID relief. And if you look nationwide, a lot of this COVID relief wasn't even spent on making the school safer. A lot of districts spent the money on diversity, equity and inclusion program and they've also spent the money in some states, even like in Texas on sports stadiums. I thought this was supposed to be about opening the schools.
DeAngelis: It was just a bailout that the teachers unions understood that they could receive from the taxpayer. And look, in some places in bluer areas, places that have stronger teachers unions, it's like the hostage takers have received the ransom payments already and they're keeping the hostages.
DeAngelis: It's totally backwards. It's a never ending cycle when you don't have bottom up accountability.
Doescher: More COVID School Closures Spell the End of Teachers Unions Empire. It's a piece on Fox News that Corey did with Lindsay Burke, one of our fellows here at The Heritage Foundation. We've heard it before and I think we're seeing it play out here, what's best for kids is not what's best for the teachers unions. In the piece, you said that "The power teachers unions might just destroy their own empire."
Doescher: Can they be held accountable for this? That's my question.
DeAngelis: Well, we're already starting and I think we're just getting started. 2021 was already the year of school choice. 19 states already enacted or expanded programs to fund students as opposed to systems.
DeAngelis: So the teachers unions overplayed their hand, showed their true colors and awakened a sleeping giant, which happens to be parents who want more of a say in their kids' education. Parents have woken up. They felt powerless in 2020 and 2021. And in some places now, they still feel powerless in 2022. So parents have woken up and they're going to fight to make sure they never feel powerless like that ever again.
DeAngelis: And look, for a long time in K to 12 education, the only special interest group was essentially the teachers union and the superintendents unions, the employee unions. But now we have this new special interest group emerging, these parents who want more of a say in their kids' education, we saw how that played out in Virginia with Youngkin's victory swinging 12 percentage points to him. In a state that went 10 percentage points to Biden, he ended up winning, Youngkin did, by two percentage points because of the issue of education.
Doescher: I want to know because if we log on and look at some of where a lot of our listeners are in this nation, it's in big cities. It's in LA. It's in Chicago area. It's in Detroit. It's in places like that. So my question is that's the place where a lot of these kids are being harmed. That's the place where they're closing schools down. What can those parents do in that area? Is it just show up to the school board meetings? You take us where we can go and take action.
DeAngelis: Yeah. There's a couple things parents can do in union heavy places like California or in Chicago. They can show up to the school board meetings. I think that's one good outlet to take your frustration in a peaceful way to push back and to make your voices heard. So show up at the school board meetings. But I will say that is an imperfect solution that the school board might not, they just might not listen to you. They might not care about what you say because you don't have an exit option. There isn't that bottom up accountability.
DeAngelis: So you should push for that and see if that works. But at the same time, you should push at the state house level to push for school choice policies to allow the money to follow the child. If you look in Arizona, more of a purple-ish state, the governor just announced last week a program to allow families to take their money elsewhere if their public schools close for even one day. So they could take up to $7,000 to a private school or some type of micro school or pandemic pod type of option, have the money follow the child.
DeAngelis: Every governor follow Ducey's lead. He actually did this through American Rescue Plan funding, the state and local portion of the funding, and it didn't have to go through the legislature. Arizona, granted, already had a large degree of school choice options, but this was just icing on the cake to allow families to have this emergency funding to access alternatives. And then there's other potential solutions in blue states, like California has two ballot initiatives coming up potentially in 2022 this year that would be statewide.
DeAngelis: The money, $13,000, in California would follow the child to wherever they're getting an education, public, private, charter or homeschool option. And they're putting it on the ballot because they understand that they're more likely to convince the voters to support this and have a majority of voters go to the ballot and say yes, than to lobby the Democrats in office. And the reason for that is look, although this is a bipartisan, nonpartisan issue, everybody pretty much supports this on the ground when you look at the majorities of independents, Republicans and Democrats.
DeAngelis: It's only when you get into the office that Democrats just happen to be a lot less likely to support school choice policies. And it's not because it's not a bipartisan issue, in theory, it's because their campaign contributions disproportionately come from the teachers unions who are fighting to protect their monopoly.
Doescher: Imagine that.
DeAngelis: We mentioned Randi Weingarten earlier, American Federation of Teachers.
DeAngelis: Every single campaign cycle since 1990, the last three decades, over 97% of the American Federation of Teachers' campaign contributions have gone to Democrats as opposed to Republicans. So the Democrats are kind of in a tough situation right now with this new special interest group forming, the parents. So they're going to have to choose. There will be no more hiding going forward.
DeAngelis: You have to choose the parents or the teachers unions. And I'm on the side of parents. I think politicians would be wise to listen to the parents as well. Because look, they're going to fight for the right to educate their kids as they see fit harder than anyone will ever fight to take that right away from them, and parents care about their kids more than anybody else.
Doescher: Yeah. The piece is called More COVID School Closures Spell the End of Teachers Unions Empire. It's by Corey DeAngelis and Lindsay Burke. Corey, you're the man. You've been running all around TV, around radio. You've been all around the country. I know it because I follow you on Twitter. Y'all should do that as well. What's your Twitter handle?
DeAngelis: It's @DeAngelisCorey, just my last name, first name.
Doescher: He's a great follow if you're into these issues. And even not into these issues, he's a great follow. So Corey, thank you so much for being here today and for doing this episode.
DeAngelis: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Doescher: Wow. That was such a powerful interview with Corey. Want to thank him again for coming into the studio to do that. Now, we've linked to the Fox News piece that he and Lindsay Burke wrote in the show notes, as well as our coverage of schools and teachers unions since the pandemic started. It's good stuff, folks, so head over and check it out. And Michelle's got the next episode, so we will look forward to her explaining away. But until then, have a great one.