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Analysis: Unions and the Politicization of Teachers

It’s hard to escape politics these days. It’s in the movies you watch, the music you listen to, football games – it is frustratingly inescapable. 

But schools and teachers once seemed to float above the political fray – not that they were bastions of conservatism, rather they were seen as gently progressive, like the Peace Corps or the National Park Service. 

Not anymore. Between the backlash to the nomination of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to the COVID-19 rallies and school closures, and the sometimes militant Red for Ed movement, the nation’s teachers’ unions have grasped their moment, catapulting themselves and teachers into the political limelight. 

The question is – at what cost? 

In a polarized and fractious political climate, the cost could be the trust of many of the nation’s families, potentially leading to lasting damage to teachers and the educational system as a whole. 

The politicization of the teaching profession also creates problems for teachers who don’t fit the stereotypical mold, whether because they’re conservative or because they don’t want to pick a side in the growing culture war. 

But the nation’s teachers unions have planted themselves firmly in the middle of today’s political battles – dragging teachers along with them. 

When President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, fissures in the nation’s political system became crevasses as many progressives reacted with revulsion at anything related to the president.

This carried over into the nomination of Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education. The National Education Association and American Federation for Teachers vociferously protested DeVos’s nomination, and asked their members to do the same. Teachers across the nation took to social media and the streets to express their outrage. 

Public “resistance” to Trump by teachers didn’t stop there. During Trump’s term in office, progressive teachers spoke out freely, criticizing the president not just on their personal social media accounts, but sometimes in the classroom too.  

On the flip side, teachers who support Trump have found themselves ostracized in their schools or communities. 

“Public school teacher here (17 years.) I’ve NEVER had a complaint from any parent…UNTIL a few liberal families found out I had a Trump sign in my yard. The same families that loved “my inclusive classroom” called and reported me to The Board. Heartbroken.” wrote Reona Bailey (@DaileyReona). 

If Trump’s presidency ends as expected, it’s unlikely the teachers’ unions will give up their bigger platforms, especially given the way COVID-19 has affected schools.  

School closures have brought attention to the very public role the unions have played in the shuttering of some of the nation’s largest school systems.  

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio provided cover for the city’s main teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), as he made the unpopular announcement that the city would close its public schools and move the districts 1.1 million school children to remote learning. He told the media the unions weren’t the reason he closed the schools, but the union’s very public pronouncements prior to the closure made many skeptical of his defense. 

Even though studies have shown COVID-19 spread in schools is low compared to other public places, UFT has said for months they backed the mayor’s decision to close schools once the city hit a 3% test positivity threshold. The city’s gyms and restaurants remain open. 

Michael Mulgrew, president of UFT, turned to Twitter to lay blame on the city, but in the responses to the tweet parents pushed back on the union. 

“Seriously. You as a union are a joke. Kids need to BE IN SCHOOL. Stop closing for no reason. Kids and staff wear masks, staff with underlying issues aren’t in school and opted out. STAY OPEN,” wrote John Hatz. 

President-elect Joe Biden made many statements during his campaign about teachers and teachers’ unions. 

He has claimed a special connection to the profession because his wife Jill was a high school English teacher, and now she teaches at a community college in Northern Virginia. 

“For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” he said in his victory speech.  

When journalists speak about Mrs. Biden they do it with the assumption that she speaks for teachers – all teachers – and that they share her politics and policy priorities. 

As to where this will leave the teachers who don’t share her husband’s politics, or those who don’t want to follow their unions into the far-left political space, remains to be seen.

Elisabeth Messenger

Elisabeth Messenger is CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Elisabeth was in the publicity department at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles, CA. From there, she learned how to build organizations that would impact culture through positions in operations and business development at Universal Music Group, VEVO, and Beats Music.