When 13,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job in August 1981, President Ronald Reagan had this to say: “Tell them when the strike’s over, they don’t have any jobs.” The media, not yet fully familiar with the seriousness with which Reagan intended to govern, scoffed at the president’s threat. But it was not a bluff. Two days later, when more than 11,000 controllers refused to come back, Reagan fired them all. It was a powerful move, and demonstrated to the entire country that essential public employees serve the public, not union bosses. America’s public school teachers should be reminded of this fact.
With thousands of teachers across the country currently protesting a return to the classroom because of COVID fears, Reagan’s example is particularly relevant. Like air traffic controllers, teachers sign employment contracts. While air traffic controllers contract with the federal government and teachers with local school districts, the principle is the same: perform the duties for which you were hired, or be fired.
Teachers who refuse to teach in the setting for which they were hired – the classroom – need to stop acting like scared bunnies and grow up. If they truly are “essential” workers, as they remind us repeatedly, then they need to start behaving like other essential employees and get back to work.
Many businesses, unfortunately, have been forced by the government to shut down wholly or in part in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, and this is having a devastating effect on our national economy. Amidst this devastation, public schools in virtually every jurisdiction across the country ended the school year early after COVID hit our shores in March.
Unlike commercial businesses, however, the prolonged closure of schools has ramifications far beyond the economic. Moreover, educating children is a process that cannot be switched on and off like a production line; the damage to young minds that are allowed to lie fallow month after month, or which are presented with “virtual” learning in place of human-to-human interface, creates learning voids not easily replenished.
“Teaching” means, if anything, working with students as well as encouraging students to work with other students in a social setting for the purpose of learning essential skills and acquiring essential knowledge. “Virtual” teaching is not teaching at all; it is cinematography – nothing more than an adult (the “teacher”) speaking to a camera, with an audience of one (the “student”) at the end of the electronic transmission watching a screen. Raw information may be thus transmitted, but not true knowledge.
What many public school teachers and their union bosses at the National Education Association appear to be setting as the price for them to return to the classroom, is a guarantee that the environment will be 100% percent COVID-free at all times. Such a condition is, of course, impossible to meet and essentially allows the teachers to avoid a return to their job site for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, demanding a zero-risk premise for classroom teaching sends the message to students (and everyone else for that matter) that risk-avoidance is the highest and most desirable goal for society. This further erodes the principle on which America’s greatness heretofore has been premised – that society advances not by avoiding challenges, but by meeting and overcoming them.
There might perhaps be somewhat more compassion for the our-way-or-the-highway posture being taken by these public school teachers had they and their union not spent decades working to ensure that public education remained the only practical option for millions of families across America. Unionized teachers continue to vilify homeschooling and oppose providing taxpaying parents any meaningful ability to choose where to send their children to be educated.
No teacher should be forced to go into the classroom against their will. However, if local government leaders properly equip them with personal protective equipment and mandate reasonable protocols within the schools to minimize the risk of COVID, and if teachers and their unions then still refuse to teach in school, it is time to “pull a Reagan” and fire them. The money saved from thinning educational bloat of protesting teachers and useless district administrators with nothing to do, can be returned to parents who are struggling to pay for alternatives to ensure their children actually have a productive school year.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7 District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.