Republicans threaten to defund schools that delay opening for safety reasons

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Many of teachers unions are resisting in-person teaching in cities suffering enormous spikes in COVID cases.  

Republicans are calling to strip funding from public education because teachers unions around the country have voiced objections to reopening schools for in-person learning, many of which the unions say do not meet federal recommendations for keeping students safe during the pandemic.

"Don't defund the Chicago police. Defund the Chicago Teachers Union," tweeted Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) Tuesday, as the Chicago Teachers Union continued negotiations with the city's public school system over reopening schools and threatened to strike if forced to return to in-person teaching.

Teachers unions are predominantly funded by member dues, but Jordan's message was clear: Strip funding from schools and educators who won't reopen.

On Jan. 27, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) slammed the unions and called for defunding schools that can't or won't reopen for in-person learning.

"Doctors,nurses,fire fighters,police officers,garbage men,cashiers at grocery stores,letter carriers & Florida teachers are WORKING," Rubio tweeted. "Not one penny of taxpayer COVID money should go to schools that want to get paid not to work while kids stay home all day & fall behind academically."

He added, "National teachers' union (not teachers) are saying they won't go back to work until 2022. We should not send a single taxpayer dollar in Covid funds to schools that aren't going to reopen."

Other Republicans, while not explicitly calling for school defunding, have also slammed teachers unions for allegedly preventing schools from reopening.

"I have no doubt that the pandemic has had real effects on teachers—just as it has on grocery store workers and those working in the food supply chain, and millions of others who continue to do their jobs in the face of this virus," tweeted South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, while Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas said that "teacher unions are strong, and students are not their priority."

Florida Rep. Mike Waltz tweeted, "Teacher unions continue to bully their respective governments in California, New York, and Illinois on both reopening measures and attempting to cut the line for vaccines over seniors," and the state's Sen. Rick Scott said, "Even Dr. Fauci agrees it’s time to reopen schools. So why are @JoeBiden and @SenateDems choosing to stand against science, students and families? Maybe it's the money teachers' unions pour into their campaigns."

In late January, Utah Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to cut funding from Salt Lake City schools that did not open with an in-person option by Feb. 8, and Republicans in the Tennessee state General Assembly, backed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, have introduced a similar bill.

The administration of Donald Trump had also sought to penalize schools that would not open for in-person in 2020, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos telling Fox News' Tucker Carlson in July that cutting funding to such schools was "definitely something to be looked at."

"The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!" Trump tweeted.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as infectious disease specialists such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said schools reopening for in-person learning is ideal, they do not recommend reopening in districts where numbers of virus cases are soaring.

"The many benefits of in-person schooling should be weighed against the risks of spreading COVID-19 in the school and community," the CDC notes in its Dec. 31 "Safe Schools for All" recommendations.

Many of the unions resisting in-person teaching hail from major cities suffering enormous spikes in the number of COVID cases.

"There is little likelihood the low-income communities we serve, which have been hit hardest by the virus, will meet the proposed 'Safe Schools for All' COVID guidelines by Feb. 1," said Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Many experts say even March 1 is unlikely, given current health conditions. Sadly, COVID numbers remain at dangerously high levels in nearly every category — infections, hospitalizations, and deaths."

"All this rhetoric about the union stopping this or that — we're not stopping anything," Diamonté Brown, president of the teachers union in Baltimore, Maryland, told USA Today. "We don't get to negotiate if we go back, but how. Ultimately, some teachers will come in, some won't, and some will retire."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.