Chicago Teachers Might Strike. A Group of Parents, Backed by a Right-Wing Law Firm, Stands to Sue.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 3, 2021.
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THIS WEEK IN Chicago, as the local teachers union considers whether to strike over the safety of the city’s school reopening plan during the pandemic, a group of at least nine parents represented by the Liberty Justice Center, a conservative public interest law firm, say they’re ready to sue if educators vote for a work stoppage.

Lawyers with the Liberty Justice Center — the same legal organization which brought the landmark Janus v. AFSCME lawsuit in 2018 to the U.S Supreme Court — argue a Chicago Teachers Union strike would be in violation of Illinois law and the union’s current collective bargaining agreement. The CTU contract commits to avoiding strikes or pickets while the agreement is in effect. “That doesn’t change even if [Chicago Public Schools] engages in an unfair labor practice or allegedly requires teachers to work in an unsafe environment,” attorney Jeffrey Schwab wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune. “It has become clear that kids are collateral damage for the union’s political and financial leverage.”

Chicago is not the only city where the anti-union law firm is seizing on parents’ frustration with virtual learning to help bring challenges against one of their long-standing political targets. The Liberty Justice Center is also representing parents in Chandler, Arizona, and Fairfax County, Virginia, where educators have organized sick-outs to protest school reopening plans. The group is an affiliate of the right-wing State Policy Network and has ties to the Bradley Foundation and the Koch network. Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Liberty Justice Center, told The Intercept their lawyers stand ready to sue if teachers “use the illegal tactic again” and that they represent parents free of charge.

In late October, the Fairfax Education Association, which represents about 4,000 teachers and staff, urged its members to call out sick for a mental health day, as the union determined proposals to resume in-person learning. The vast majority of students in Fairfax County, the 10th largest school district in the country, have been learning from home since the coronavirus pandemic began last March. (A district spokesperson said the impact on instruction from the sick-out was minimal.) In December, the Liberty Justice Center sent a demand letter to the union and the school district warning them that the sick-out had been an illegal strike under Virginia law. The attorneys promised to sue if teachers take that step again.

Nellie Rhodes, a Fairfax County parent, is one of a handful of plaintiffs who have been working with the Liberty Justice Center. Her son, a freshman in high school, has been struggling with remote learning. “We heard about their work and reached out,” Rhodes told The Intercept. “They’re helping us in an effort, and we need their help. They’re putting the unions on notice that if they do something illegal, go on protest, have a sick day, we’re going to sue.”

In Fairfax County, the school board voted Tuesday to bring all students back for hybrid learning next month, beginning on March 16. The teachers union has indicated it wants to wait until all staff have received their second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine; 65 percent of staff have so far received their first dose. In Chicago, the school district has been trying to bring back K-8 students to the classroom, though currently has no plan or timeline for high schoolers.

Different parent groups have different goals for what reopening schools would look like, and multiple parent groups sometimes exist within the same city. Cristy Hudson, a mother of three in Fairfax who helped launch a grassroots group, Open Fairfax County Public Schools, over the summer, told The Intercept while they’re glad the school board is moving forward with reopenings, they’d like to see “a pretty quick expansion to kids back in school five days a week.” Another parent group, the Open FCPS Coalition, is currently focused on recall efforts of school board members they believe have delayed in-person learning too long. A new parent group that formed in January, the Chicago Parents Collective, says it’s pushing for clarity and commitments on reopening. “Let’s take baby steps, none of this is going to be perfect, we recognize that,” Ryan Griffin, a parent member, said in a local radio interview. “But we cannot let this pursuit of perfect get in the way of making some incremental progress on the education of our children.”

Other conservative organizations are capitalizing on parent frustrations with school closures to further political goals around weakening labor unions and public education. Since March, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank in D.C., has been urging state and federal lawmakers to push private school vouchers and new subsidies for homeschooling in light of the pandemic. And this year, a wave of new private school voucher bills have been introduced in over 15 states across the country, with lawmakers hoping to advance the policies with less public resistance than they might typically face.

Jennifer Berkshire, a journalist who monitors education privatization efforts, says the school reopening debates have fascinated her, as they’ve activated a group of parents that school choice groups have historically struggled to mobilize.

“Many of these upset parents are in elite suburban districts who paid a lot of money to move specifically to those communities for those public schools,” she said. “They’re not the families who have historically embraced school choice and defunding schools.” Berkshire notes that State Policy Network affiliates have “seen the anger of those parents as something that can be weaponized” and have stepped in to offer themselves as a resource.

“It’s not a coincidence that you’re seeing these huge proposed voucher expansions now in all these different states,” Berkshire added. “And I think their hope is to basically mobilize parents who’ve never been interested before, or at least there will be less opposition.”

Charles Siler, a former lobbyist for the libertarian think tank Goldwater Institute, says conservative groups have been looking for new ways during the pandemic to drive a wedge between parents and their individual schools. Parents typically give their own schools high marks in public opinion surveys, even if they have broader critiques about the public education system writ large. A 2019 national survey by the educator professional association Phi Delta Kappa found 76 percent of parents gave their own child’s school an A or B grade. A Gallup poll released in August found K-12 parents’ satisfaction with their child’s education fell 10 percentage points from a year earlier, though it still stood at 72 percent.

While it might seem counterintuitive to have conservative organizations fighting to get students back into the very traditional public schools they typically rail against, Siler says, hastening teacher returns can also help advance conservative movement goals of accelerating staff departures from the public school system altogether.

“If you force teachers to return to work in an unsafe environment, especially when safe alternatives exist, a lot of teachers will retire early or choose to not renew their contracts,” he said. “Fewer people will also want to become teachers because they see what’s happening, the lack of funding and respect. This exploitative assault could cripple public education for decades.”

An American Federation of Teachers national survey conducted in August and September found one-third of educators say the pandemic has made them more likely to leave teaching earlier than they planned.

Berkshire, the education journalist, says while making the teaching profession less attractive is certainly part of the “long game” of the conservative movement, another objective is to use the pandemic and the associated teacher shortages to advance bills that remove teacher licensing requirements. Ending or easing occupational licensing is something long-sought by education reformers and opposed by teacher unions.

In July, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in D.C., urged states to waive their teacher licensing requirements to more quickly facilitate in-person learning. “These regulatory barriers and other concerns could hinder efforts to reopen schools,” he argued. A few months later, a fellow with the Empire Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank in New York, proposed “relaxing or abolishing teacher preparation program requirements” as well as easing certification rules to “invite more competition for teaching jobs.”

Shaun Richman, the program director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College, says the current distrust undergirding battles to get reluctant teachers back into the classroom is the result of years of hostile treatment from policymakers and administrators.

“Decades of union-busting attacks on teachers unions, under the guise of ‘education reform’ with the cynical manipulation of ‘civil rights’ and ‘student success’ rhetoric, have utterly destroyed the trust necessary to get school districts like Chicago to return to any form of face-to-face instruction during this actual crisis,” he said. “Anyone who’s serious about getting the buy-in from teachers that’s necessary [for reopening] needs to shun and denounce the [former Trump Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and Janus crowd.”

Stuck-at-Home Parents Want More Support for Home Schooling

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on July 22, 2020.
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Christine Morgan, a mother in Peachtree City, Ga., calls herself “a big proponent of public schools.” But after dealing with her district’s remote-learning offerings this past spring—which she says were scant on instruction and heavy on busywork—she decided to look at home schooling for her rising fourth grader. “I would consider sending my kid back to brick-and-mortar school if everyone were taking the virus seriously and taking precautions,” she says. “But it’s Georgia, and they are not.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, about 4% of school-age children in the U.S. were home-schooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Many more families are weighing the option for the fall, either frustrated with remote learning through their public school or nervous about the health risks of sending their children into buildings with others. School choice proponents, who’ve long advocated that per-pupil spending should “follow the child” wherever they seek their education, hope to capitalize on the shift. And with the backing of President Trump and Republicans in Congress, home schooling could get the biggest boost it’s ever gotten from the federal government in the next round of stimulus funding.

In April the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group that was formerly chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, commissioned a poll and found that 40% of families were more likely to consider home schooling even after lockdowns ended. Tommy Schultz, the group’s vice president, says the results were initially met with skepticism: “Some people were saying, ‘Well, those numbers are inflated and it’s too early to tell.’ ” But in late May, a separate Ipsos/USA Today poll found 60% of parents were considering home schooling in the fall and 30% were “very likely” to make the switch.

“We started putting on social media, ‘Hey, we’re spending on average $15,000 per kid for public schools. Shouldn’t families get some of that back to support home education?’ and that sort of messaging just skyrocketed in terms of interest and engagement,” Schultz says. “We’ve been running online petitions, and it’s the single largest spike in advocacy we’ve ever seen.”

Brittany Wade, a mother of five in Washington, D.C., is among the parents who think the government should do more to help families shoulder the cost of home schooling. Wade and her husband considered opting out of public school even before the pandemic, frustrated with what they felt was a stagnant curriculum offering too little Black history.

Wade helped her children with remote learning through the spring and says the difficulty of that experience hastened her decision to explore home schooling for the fall. She’s in the planning stages, browsing Facebook groups and talking with veteran home-schooling parents in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. “I do think there should be more support for parents that are choosing to keep their kids home,” she says. Because some of the learning apps that District of Columbia Public Schools used during the spring aren’t available during the summer, she says, “I had to pay out-of-pocket for them.”

Home-schooling families receive virtually nothing from the federal government, and some don’t want any public funding, seeing it as opening the door to government interference. But conservatives in Congress have been trying to change that. Now, with House Democrats and education groups clamoring for at least $250 billion in education stimulus funding, Republicans have their best shot in years to push through new school choice programs. Trump and DeVos support the passage of Education Freedom Scholarships, a $5 billion annual tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to organizations that support private-school tuition or home-school expenses. Eighteen states have tax credit scholarship programs, although according to EdChoice, New Hampshire’s is the only one in which home-school students are eligible for funds.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who introduced the Education Freedom Scholarships legislation in 2019, also introduced the Helping Parents Educate Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic Act in June. The bill, which he hopes to include in the next round of stimulus, would allow parents to use 529 college savings plans to cover K-12 expenses such as tutoring, test fees, and private-school tuition.

It’s not clear whether Democrats will bite. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said that with only weeks until the start of the new academic year, “the administration and Secretary DeVos remain fixated on how it can siphon away resources for vouchers and other privatization schemes” instead of plugging public schools’ funding gaps.

Many school districts are scrambling to figure out how to keep students enrolled, at least in their virtual options, to avoid steep drops in per-pupil funding on top of additional budget cuts as states face a financial crisis. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has urged Congress to reject “failed ‘choice’ schemes” in any future stimulus package. Her national teachers’ union has fought aggressively against past attempts to expand federal funding for favored school choice options such as charter and private schools, and likewise sees home schooling as a way to undercut public education. “DeVos’ craven attempts to divide and privatize would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Diane Ravitch, president of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group championing public schools, is sympathetic to families that might decide on home schooling in the fall. “They won’t do it happily. They want real teachers, but they don’t want their children at risk,” she says. When Covid-19 is no longer a threat, Ravitch predicts parents who opted out will return their kids to public schools. “This isn’t going to be a permanent way of life.”

But other experts think the overlap we’re now seeing between remote schooling and home education will likely persist after the pandemic ends. Travis Pillow is the editorial director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center based at the University of Washington Bothell. “The twin financial and public-health pressures of Covid appear to be accelerating the blurring of the lines between public education and home schooling that was already picking up steam before the pandemic,” he says. For Pillow, this would be a good thing—one that could lead to improvements and make home schooling more accessible. “We would welcome new entrants into this space,” he says, “because existing outcomes in full-time online learning have been pretty dismal.”