(April 9, 2021 / JNS) If there is any profession other than medical personnel that would ordinarily be thought of as “essential workers,” it would have to be teachers. Other than those who work to save lives, it’s hard to think of a more essential task than educating children. Teachers have the power to inspire their students, open them up to new vistas of learning and set them on a path to lead productive lives.
That’s why one of the most discouraging aspects of the coronavirus pandemic has been the public-school teachers unions’ opposition to the reopening of schools for in-person instruction, despite all the evidence showing that doing so is both safe and in the best interests of children.
That the unions seem to have an agenda that is contrary to the goal of advancing education has been clear for a long time. But nothing has done more to illustrate the way leadership of these groups prioritize their own selfish interests and leftist doctrine, as opposed to education itself, than an interview that Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave to JTA this week.
During the course of a fawning Q&A with a blatantly misleading headline about Weingarten having a “vision to get kids back to school,” the union boss and New York City resident exposed disdain for her fellow Jews and the families her members are supposed to be serving.
She was asked how she would respond to parents who are complaining about the fact that unions have been the primary obstacle to opening up public schools, no matter that many, if not most, private and parochial schools have been open for full-time in-person instruction since the fall. That’s especially an issue in Los Angeles, where a massive government investment has been made to help make the schools safe. Still, the unions are doggedly refusing to let their teachers show up for work in the classroom.
Weingarten’s answer, in which, unprompted, she chose to single out Jews who held that opinion, said a lot more about her slavish devotion to woke ideology, as well as her arrogance and contempt for these families, than anything else.
“American Jews are now part of the ownership class. Jews were immigrants from somewhere else. And they needed the right to have public education. And they needed power to have enough income and wealth for their families that they could put their kids through college and their kids could do better than they have done. Both economic opportunity through the labor movement and an educational opportunity through public education were key for Jews to go from the working class to the ownership class. What I hear when I hear that question is that those who are in the ownership class now want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it.”
The union is still claiming that—against all the evidence and the experience of their colleagues in other systems—their members are too afraid to come to work. They claim that they must all be vaccinated first, but have also set other demands about funding and more “equity”—a buzz word for replacing equality with race-based schemes to further skew the education system towards the indoctrination of leftist dogmas about critical race theory and “white privilege”—that have been set up as excuses to prevent the resumption of in-person teaching.
Yet it’s interesting that she chose to inject the notion of Jews as beneficiaries of white privilege into the discussion.
Weingarten is the spouse of Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a synagogue that serves the LGBTQ community in New York. But she spoke in a manner that seems straight of the anti-Semitic themes sounded by Karl Marx’s infamous essay “On the Jewish Question,” in which the man who founded communism (and was himself also Jewish) spewed angry contempt for his fellow Jews, and labeled them as capitalist parasites and oppressors.
For Weingarten—a national figure and major political player in the Democratic Party—to use these stereotypes is disgraceful. It illustrates exactly what those who worry about the way advocates for toxic theories about white privilege are giving a permission slip to anti-Semites have been talking about.
That she did so in order to distract the public from the damage that she and her union are inflicting on the children of this country is doubly shameful. But what makes it even worse is that it’s not Jewish families complaining about unions trying to “take away the ladder of opportunity” from the poor. It’s Weingarten and the AFT who are doing that.
Though teachers are, as a whole, often underpaid and overworked, their unions have been the single greatest obstacle to reopening public schools.
Nor is this the first time these unions, which are intensely partisan political institutions, have acted in a manner that is harmful to public education and to the well-being of minority students and others who are disadvantaged. Their opposition to school-choice programs has contributed to keeping poor children trapped in failing schools rather than given an opportunity to succeed elsewhere. The fact that Democratic politicians are beholden to Weingarten’s union for vast sums donated in campaign contributions ensures that the party continues to be a roadblock to both choice programs and charter school alternatives that have a proven record of helping children.
The unions’ determination to keep schools closed is nothing less than a scandal. They are consigning a generation of children to yet more months of Zoom classes that are both harming their development and widening the gap between the rich and the poor—something that is particularly dangerous for inner-city minority kids who were already underserved by the public system.
Evidence has become clear that opening the schools is not dangerous to the overwhelming majority of teachers or children. And though online teaching is a difficult job, it’s often of little use for many children, especially those in the lower grades. It’s also particularly outrageous since the unions seem to be saying that teachers are not quite as essential as not just doctors and nurses, but also grocery-store clerks, who have been showing up for work every day throughout the pandemic.
The union’s stand has also been undermined by their hypocrisy. In a notorious incident, a Facebook group for teachers instructed participants not to post pictures online of their spring-break vacations. “It’s hard to argue that it is unsafe for in-person instruction if parents and the public see vacation photos and international travel,” it advised. No truer words have ever been posted online.
The injury that Weingarten and the unions are doing to children is incalculable. But that she is doing it in the name of protecting “opportunity” for the underprivileged while trashing middle-class Jewish families who want their kids in school is world-class chutzpah.
Nor, despite her claim in the JTA interview, are her actions rooted in “Jewish values.” Where in Jewish texts or tradition does it say that it’s OK to force minority kids to be stuck in dead-end public schools that foreclose any path to a productive future just to protect the power of teachers unions that might be lost if parents were allowed to choose better schools for their families that they can’t currently afford?
Nor is it a Jewish value to force parents to stay home watching their kids rather than go to work and help keep them out of poverty just because Weingarten’s union has discovered that the pandemic lockdowns suited them just fine.
Teachers deserve all we can give them, but the unions and their egomaniacal leaders like Weingarten have become not merely a hindrance to improving public education but a deeply destructive force. That she has added targeting Jews for abuse to that indictment is merely the icing on the cake. As long as people like Randi Weingarten have public education by the throat, America’s children are in danger.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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