A frequent knock on the A.F.T. is that it puts teachers before students, a framing neatly encapsulated by a quote attributed to the union’s former president Al Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Shanker’s biographer, Richard Kahlenberg, found no record of Shanker’s ever saying this and doesn’t think he ever did, but that hasn’t stopped the union’s critics from citing it. Weingarten has a rebuttal: Good working conditions for teachers make good learning conditions for students. But Weingarten does in fact represent teachers, not students. Often, such as when it comes to issues like classroom size or school budgets, their interests align. Sometimes they don’t.
For a period during the pandemic, the two groups’ apparent interests diverged, and a series of fault lines started opening across the country, separating not only Republicans from Democrats but also parents from teachers, centrist Democrats from progressives and urban Black parents from suburban white parents, and even dividing the teachers’ union itself. These fault lines widened as the reopening debates merged into fights over how schools should deal with the teaching of the country’s racial history as well as sexuality and gender identity.
What became increasingly clear to me over the last several months, as I spoke to dozens of politicians, political consultants, union leaders, parent activists and education scholars about the convulsions in American education, is that it’s no longer possible to separate education from politics, and that public schools are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been. How did Randi Weingarten wind up at the center of the 2024 Republican primary? The only way to answer that question is to re-examine America’s education wars and the competing political agendas that are driving them. “Oh, goodness, no! Not at all!” Pompeo answered when I asked if he was, perhaps, being hyperbolic in his remarks about Weingarten. “It’s not just about Ms. Weingarten, but she has been the most visible face of the destruction of American education.”
In the chaotic early months of the pandemic, teachers were celebrated as essential workers, heroically continuing to serve America’s children from their homes, often with limited resources and inadequate technology. But during the summer of 2020, things started to shift. There was already early research showing that students were suffering academically from remote learning. Schools across Europe had begun reopening without any major outbreaks, and many of America’s private and parochial schools were making plans to resume in-person learning at the start of the new school year. A lot of public-school parents wanted their children to be back in the classroom, too. But many teachers seemed resistant to the idea.
Because of the decentralized structure of America’s public-education system, which has some 14,000 different school districts, the federal government could not order schools to reopen for in-person learning, but in July 2020, President Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from those that didn’t. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, echoed his sentiments, demanding that the nation’s schools be “fully operational” by the fall without providing a specific plan for doing so.