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Public schools are closed in favor of virtual classrooms in some areas. Elsewhere, however, schools have physically reopened to the children of willing parents. It should be no surprise that the varying strength of teachers’ unions has a lot to do with these decisions. One cannot claim that the pattern of closures is a response to varying levels of COVID risk, as there is no geographic association between the closures and COVID cases or deaths. The shame of it is that closures compromise learning and also have destructive effects on local labor markets and the ability of parents to earn incomes.

That unions play this role, often decisively, is shown in a new paper entitled “Are School Reopening Decisions Related to Union Influence?“, by Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis (HT: Tyler Cowen). The authors examine the fall reopening decisions of 835 school districts and find that “… districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen in person“. The authors test four different measures of union strength with similar findings. They also rule out potential confounding influences like voting patterns.

Shall we defend the unions for protecting their members from excessive risk? Well, another important finding reported by the authors won’t surprise anyone having the least familiarity with data on C19 risks:

“We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.”

Few children catch the virus and children are not effective at transmitting C19 to their peers, teachers, and parents. Furthermore, schools closed to in-person learning are not located in areas at elevated risk relative to those remaining open.

The role of teachers’ unions in school reopening decisions is a textbook case of the inadvisability of unionized public employees. Most obviously, it is in their interests to encourage greater funding and taxes. This is but one of many dimensions of the political agendas that teachers’ unions may advance, and to which member dues are put. These are not always representative of members’ views, which is especially problematic in states without right-to-work laws.

The very nature of public service means that the work of public employees (or its absence) has profound external influences on the community at large. The unions are not shy about using this power as leverage in negotiations. Thus, teachers’ unions often act as adversaries not only to taxpayers, but to parents, children, and the business community.

Do public school administrators and elected school board members belong on the list of union adversaries as well? Perhaps: the unions have bullied school districts and have made them less attractive as educational institutions in a cost-benefit sense. In the present case, the unions have successfully lobbied for ongoing payments of income and benefits to their members despite the degraded effectiveness of on-line instruction for many K-12 students. Meanwhile, many parents are learning to exercise choice in the matter by abandoning public schools in favor of private alternatives.