Turning the push to reopen schools into a ‘Republicans seizing’ story overlooks a few important points

I read this piece by Dave Weigel at the Washington Post this afternoon. It’s headlined “Republicans unite around a message — schools should reopen, and Democrats are to blame.” The piece itself is fine as far as what it says, i.e. the GOP is adopting the push to reopen the schools as a central message. But in the desire to present a simply story of left vs. right politics, it seems to omit a lot of what has actually been going on around the country.

Amid bitter fights over the role Donald Trump should play in their party, the GOP is unified behind a clear message: Restrictions on in-person learning should end, and only Republicans are ready to end them. In interviews and in ads, Republicans are hitting the talking point hard, using the issue to woo suburban voters alienated by Trump’s abrasive style.

To make their case, the GOP is using Democrats’ promise to follow the science against them. Republicans have armed themselves with research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying that Democrats are ignoring data to keep students at home, and that only union pressure can explain why.

“These kids have been out of school in parts of this country for almost a year, and if you follow that CDC guidance, they will not go back in this school year,” DeSantis said. “That is a disgrace, that is not science. That is putting politics ahead of what’s right for kids.”…

“It’s the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed,” Rep. Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who leads the NRCC, told NBC News. Democrats, he argued, were “standing with their special-interest donors instead of the students.”

The Post also published a companion piece of sorts (“Republicans think they’ve found Biden’s big weakness. But there’s a problem.”) arguing that the GOP push on this issue won’t work for long because most kids will be back to school by the fall. In other words, Democrats shouldn’t worry too much about these GOP talking points.

Look, it’s accurate to say the GOP is adopting this reopen schools now message (though to be fair they’ve been pretty consistent about the reopen message for a while now) but it’s also a bit misleading to frame this as a GOP vs. Democrats battle. Why? Because it’s not just Republicans who have been pushing to reopen schools and fighting with teacher’s unions. In fact, in many places around the country it’s Democratic governors and mayors who have been leading the fight.

For example, yesterday I wrote about Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon who pushed teachers to the head of the vaccine line in order to get schools opened more quickly because of the damage she could see remote learning was doing to some students. She was surprised when the head of the teacher’s union in Portland criticized her for putting teachers in a terrible position, i.e. expecting them to go back to work once they’d been vaccinated. In a story published yesterday the NY Times suggested the likely explanation for why schools were still closed in may western cities was because unions have so much power there. In case it’s not clear, they didn’t mean power over Republican office holders.

In San Francisco, the city has sued the school district in order to force some action on reopening. As in Oregon, the ultimate motivation was the damage being done to students who’d been out of in-person classes for nearly a year:

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced last week he was taking the dramatic step of suing the city’s own school district, which has kept its classrooms closed nearly a year. In the motion filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court, Herrera included alarming testimony from hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area, doctors and parents on the emotional and mental harms of extended distance learning.

The LA City Council has also been discussing plans to sue the school district to force them to reopen.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot threatened to declare what the teacher’s union was doing an illegal strike if they refused to return to classrooms. In an interview she told the NY Times that unions seemed as interested in taking over the city government as they were in being a union for teachers.

The point is that many of the most high profile and consequential battles over reopening schools have taken place in cities that are entirely controlled by Democrats. So when you pick out some comments by Gov. DeSantis, that’s not really representative of what has been happening in the largest school districts in the country.

Yes, it’s true that the GOP is coming down on one side of this argument (against teacher’s unions) but it would be just as accurate to say they are on the side of Democratic mayors and governors who are the ones actually fighting the unions to get schools open. At a minimum, I don’t see how you go through an entire story on this topic without even mentioning that elected Democrats around the country have been similarly beating their heads against the teacher’s unions and making some of the same arguments about school safety and reopening for weeks.

In short, there is something approaching bipartisan consensus that unions are out of line on this issue but in the rush to write “Republicans seize” stories that gets glossed over or omitted entirely.

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