Analysis: States and Districts May Not Be Ready to Spend $122B in Rescue Plan Funds, But the Unions Are. Get Ready for More School Hiring

NEA President Becky Pringle and AFT President Randi Weingarten (California Teachers Association and Getty Images)

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

We are still a long way from getting all of America’s schoolchildren back into classrooms five days a week, but it’s clear that the tide has turned in favor of reopening. Vaccines have proven even more effective than we hoped, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended lifting of many restrictions, and even Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave her approval of school reopenings, albeit not until the fall.

We were unprepared for abrupt school closures in March 2020, and we were unprepared for the long and difficult battle to get them reopened. It seems to me we are again unprepared for what comes next.

The teachers unions, however, are prepared.

When the pandemic struck, they wasted no time developing collective bargaining strategies for the conduct of online instruction. The National Education Association issued guidelines on March 11, 2020 — just a couple of weeks after the very first shutdowns. When the conversation shifted to reopening schools, AFT produced “A Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” in April 2020. The following month, the California Teachers Association sent its local affiliates a bargaining advisory, in which it declared, “Now is the time to secure language improvements that we have wanted for some time.”

The federal American Rescue Plan secured $122 billion in additional funding for K-12 public education, to be used for a variety of purposes, the first of which is to ensure classroom safety. But the money can also be used to hire teachers and support employees, along with new staff for programs to deal with learning loss due to the pandemic.

At the outset, the primary focus will be on safety. As more employees and students are vaccinated, and it becomes more accepted that time-consuming and costly mitigation measures such as disinfecting surfaces are unnecessary, less money will be spent on sanitizing the classroom and more on personnel and projects.

We are already seeing union campaigns to boost hiring, even though the much-predicted teacher exodus never materialized. In fact, we lost fewer school employees through resignations and retirement in 2020 than in 2019.

NEA and AFT continue to stoke fears of a teacher shortage. “As the nation’s public schools struggle with a looming teacher shortage that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the best indicators of attracting and retaining teachers is looking at the starting and average salaries for the profession,” said NEA President Becky Pringle on the release of the union’s annual Rankings & Estimates report.

It’s mind-boggling that Pringle could make such a shortage claim when the very report she touts shows “public school enrollment is down by 0.5 percent, average daily student attendance has decreased by an estimated 1.1 percent and the number of K-12 classroom teachers has increased by 4.6 percent.”

Despite this boost in the number of teachers — most of whom we can presume entered at the lower end of the pay scale — the average teacher salary nationwide increased by 2.9 percent.

About 80 cents of every dollar spent on K-12 public education goes toward employee salaries and benefits. It’s a percentage that has barely budged over the last 20 years, through fat and lean years, and multiple changes in political party representation in the presidency, Congress, state legislatures and governorships. It’s a sure bet that if you appropriate an additional dollar for public schools, whatever your intended purpose, 80 cents of it will be spent on hiring new employees and/or increasing the compensation for the ones you have. The unions will ensure that trend continues, even in the absence of justification.

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