The Unions Get Their Due(s)

President Joe Biden wasted no time in signaling to the nation’s teachers unions that better times were at hand. On his first full day in office, National Education Association President Becky Pringle, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten found themselves in the White House as guests of Dr. Jill Biden, herself an educator. During the course of her husband’s presidential campaign, the future First Lady promised that if Mr. Biden were to win the highest office in the land, the teachers unions “will always have a seat at the table.” Now ensconced in the White House, Dr. Biden told the two national union leaders, “Joe is going to be a champion for you because he knows that’s the best way to serve our students.”

Approximately six weeks later, President Biden affixed his signature to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion behemoth COVID-19 emergency relief bill, in which more than $120 billion was designated for the nation’s K-12 public schools. The massive federal appropriation, alongside the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act and the CARES Act, provide K-12 public schools with a combined $190 billion dollars. That’s roughly $3,700 per-pupil. It’s so much additional money that states and local public school districts are having trouble figuring out how to use it all.

Part of the “problem” faced by states and districts arises from the one-time nature of the aforementioned appropriations, and the restrictions they place on the permissible uses of funding. Think of a nonprofit organization that has received a generous grant from a foundation, or other benefactor. Much as the recipient might wish to use some of the money to expand its operations, it must adhere to the requirements established by the donor and, even in the event that flexibility is available, must worry about sustainability following the expiration of the grant.

Receipt of recurring funding would solve the challenge of sustainability. Which is why the additional sum of $20 billion proposed for Title I funding in President Biden’s FY 2021-22 budget request is precisely the sort of “championing” the teachers union leaders had hoped to receive. Twenty billion dollars may seem a modest sum in comparison with $190 billion. But in the long game played by the unions – and assuming Congress actually agrees to appropriate such an amount – the $20 billion bump-up in Title I funding will be gold.

Title I is the flagship component of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, originally enacted by Congress in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The purpose of the program is to provide supplementary educational assistance to those students at greatest risk of academic failure. Title I services to public school students are delivered, primarily, by teachers and other certificated personnel. In other words, by members of the teachers unions.

Imagine that 80 percent of the proposed $20 billion increase in Title I funding was to be used to increase the program’s professional labor force. Such an allocation could permit the hiring of 200,000 additional certificated employees (read “union members”). While state and local teachers union dues vary widely, at the conservative estimate of $500 per-member, the unions would stand to reap a cool $100 million windfall. On top of that, the National Education Association could count on an additional influx of $24 million, with a proportionate amount accruing to the American Federation of Teachers. (In California, full-time teachers who are members of the California Teachers Association currently pay $737 in annual CTA dues, with an additional $200 tacked on for the NEA.)

Importantly, if Congress makes good on the President’s request for an additional $20 billion in discretionary Title I spending, the new funding level will be unlikely to face rollbacks in future years. Title I, in existence for more than 55 years, is something of a sacred cow. It has also become a full-fledged industry, one that – for-better-or-for-worse – is sure to benefit from the disruptions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the accompanying loss of learning, and the disproportionate deprivations suffered by the economically disadvantaged. One can only but hope that the massive investment of federal funding will accrue to the benefit of these children. One can be certain, however, that the teachers unions will be enriched (literally so) by dint of the government’s largesse.

Remarkably, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers now represent one of every four U.S. union members in the United States. That datum is explained, in part, by continuing shrinkage in private union membership. More significantly, public employee unions can and do engage in electoral politics designed to install the “management” with whom they then negotiate, making their power self-perpetuating. With a champion in the White House, former staffers appointed to key positions within the U.S. Department of Education, and a generous Congress, the teachers unions are feeling their oats.

Ron Reynolds

Note:| The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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