“School-Opening Extortion” Comes to Montgomery County, Maryland

“Teachers’ legitimate interest in risk-mitigation in the workplace does not extend to shutting down other people’s schools.”
Maryland Governor Hogan
Maryland Governor Hogan: Allowed private schools to open.

The private schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, are breathing a sigh of relief that, after much sturm und drang this past week, they’re back in charge of their own decisions about whether and how to re-open. This comes after the county ordered them to stay closed, then the governor moved to countermand the county’s authority to do so, then the county balked at carrying out the governor’s order, whereupon confusion reigned, and urgent late-in-the-game litigation seemed all but certain. On Friday, the county backed down. Whew!

Montgomery County contains about 130 private schools, which range from high-priced, elite, independent schools with sprawling campuses (one of them attended by fourteen-year-old Barron Trump) to low-cost, semi-urban, parochial schools serving poor and working-class kids, many of them Black, Brown, or immigrants. For comparison, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), one of the country’s largest districts, operates more than 200 schools.

When county health officer Travis Gayles issued his August 1 order forbidding them to open, the school the president’s son attends in upscale Potomac, according to the Washington Post, “had published in-depth reopening guidelines calling for constant mask-wearing, lunch eaten outdoors, staggered dismissal from classes, and ‘scheduled hand washing times.’” A Catholic K–8 school in middle-class Kemp Mill reportedly had made “exhaustive precautions to ensure the safety of its roughly 300 students, preparing for health screenings and spacing out desks. The school, which charges roughly $8,400 per student, had offered families a choice between three models…100 percent in-person learning, three days of in-person learning each week and fully virtual learning.” These and kindred schools around the county were doing what private schools have long done: charting their own courses, making their own decisions, maybe following their own karma, gauging their environments, examining the health data, and listening to their clients. Whether to open, how to open, and what choices to offer families all were in their own purview, and there was no reason to expect school A, school B, or school C to do it the same way, even if MCPS had to standardize its own plan.

Dr. Gayles’s original directive said no private schools in Montgomery County could open physically until at least October 1. Consternation followed, with innumerable angry and disappointed parents and school people objecting to this overturning of their own careful plans for the new year, as well as the unprecedented usurpation of the schools’ autonomy. Some schools said they would comply, while others appealed to Governor Larry Hogan. Attorneys were hired and lawsuits readied. Then Hogan responded on August 3 with an amended executive order denying the state’s local governments, all of which are counties except for Baltimore City, the authority to order schools closed, though they remained free to make their own rules for just about everything else.

This was a peculiar use of executive action, and it’s not clear what statutory or constitutional authority Hogan was relying on to create this carve-out for schools. Nor is it the first time he’s used executive orders to intrude in key decisions about school openings and closings—although, perversely, in the previous instance that I know best, he did so to remove local discretion.

Gayles initially stuck to his guns, insisting that he was right and Hogan wrong, and he was backed by County Executive Marc Elrich. Confusion reigned until, probably to avoid litigation, the county officials backed down. Gayles didn’t change his view, however, stating in the latest Health Department directive that “I continue to strongly believe that…it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall.”

All this fuss might just be the intergovernmental version of bull elephant seals fighting over their harems. But as with all school reopening decisions, politics and adult interests are also at play. Montgomery County’s current executive is a famously liberal Democrat who is close—to put it gently—to the big public-employee unions, most definitely including the county’s omnipresent teachers union, and he almost always does their bidding, no matter how fiscally irresponsible that often turns out to be. Even the famously liberal county council has occasionally had to reject (or trim) his over-generous pandering with tax dollars.

Larry Hogan, though no conservative, is a Republican, and on the handful of occasions when he’s pushed for some education reform or initiative, he’s nearly always been reversed by the powerful Maryland State Education Association and its allies, including a veto-proof Democratic majority in both houses of the general assembly.

I would wager my high school diploma that the Montgomery County teachers union, having achieved its wish to keep the public schools virtual this fall (after having thrown much sand into the district’s efforts at online learning during the spring), and in the heat of a vexed negotiation over its next contract, whispered into Elrich’s receptive ears that it would be unfair to allow the private schools to open for business and thereby show them up. And I’d wager my college degree that the peeved private school parents who protested the county’s move to Hogan’s office fed gubernatorial suspicions that this school-closing order was again the handiwork of the union, its catspaw in the County Executive’s office, and its fellow travelers at the state level.

Why should you, who live elsewhere, care about any of these goings-on in my backyard? Because what’s been happening here is a microcosm of a national phenomenon. When Chicago Public Schools announced a few days back that its vast system would be all-virtual this fall, it was responding to a threatened strike by the city’s teachers union if it attempted to do otherwise. The same thing happened in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. In New York, Governor Cuomo has said that schools may reopen, and Mayor de Blasio wants them to open, but the state’s and city’s mighty teachers unions are far from convinced, and while strikes aren’t allowed in New York, there are all sorts of other ways the unions and their members can manage to keep schools closed. New Mexico’s Democratic governor has decreed that private schools in the Land of Enchantment must abide by rules for close-contact businesses. The Florida Teachers Association has gone to court to invalidate the governor’s school-reopening order. And the American Federation of Teachers has said it’s fine with “safety strikes” if local teachers don’t think enough has been done to safeguard their health.

“School-opening Extortion” the Wall Street Journal termed it in a scathing editorial. “Rather than work to open schools safely,” quoth the editorialists, “the unions are issuing ultimatums and threatening strikes until granted their ideological wish list.” That includes not opening public schools physically, paying teachers and other school personnel extra to work during the pandemic, and keeping charter and private schools closed, too, lest the competition look more appealing to parents, politicians, and possibly teachers themselves. This is happening most conspicuously in blue states far beyond Maryland. Reports the Journal:

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has said that if public schools are remote-only, private schools must be too. In Milwaukee, private schools planning to reopen were blindsided by a state order that no schools can do so until the city meets certain benchmarks. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has laid out new guidelines that will prevent private and public schools from reopening until the state declares they can.

Never to waste a crisis—whether that maxim is properly attributed to Rahm Emmanuel, Winston Churchill, Saul Alinsky or M.F. Weiner—is a lesson that America’s teacher unions have internalized, and the Covid-19 pandemic has created for them a remarkable opportunity to throw their weight around in pursuit of a multi-part agenda: more money, less work, less competition, less testing, less accountability, and while they’re at it, help elect candidates in November (national, state, and local) who will adhere to that agenda long after the hoped-for vaccine is in widespread use. The draft Democratic platform, for example, would clamp down on charter schools and end “high-stakes testing.”

Sure, school teachers, like everyone else considering going back to work, have legitimate health concerns. Almost one in five of them are fifty-five or older, and a number of others have underlying conditions. Maybe a quarter to a third of them have cause for heightened concern about the potential consequences of acquiring the coronavirus. So do plenty of other school employees—bus drivers, school secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and more. Understood. That’s why competent schools and school systems that are reopening are taking extra precautions not only with their physical set-up, but also with their staffing plans. So, of course, is every conscientious entity that is asking its employees to return to the workplace. These decisions aren’t easy, and in many places, they’re still very much in flux.

Teachers’ legitimate interest in risk-mitigation in the workplace does not, however, extend to shutting down other people’s schools, slapping new constraints onto private and charter schools, downplaying the learning losses faced by their own pupils, squelching school choice, and doing away with results-based accountability. Not in Chicago, not in Los Angeles, not in Albuquerque, not in my backyard—and not in yours.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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