Originally published in The Intercept on February 3, 2021.
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.”