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#OpenOurSchools: GOP targets teachers unions in bid to retake suburbs

Republicans say parents have had it with in-home learning and want their kids back in the classroom.
Florida teachers hold a protest in front of the Pasco County School district office
A teacher writes a message against the reopening of schools while other Florida teachers, whose unions are against their members returning to school, hold a car parade protest in front of the Pasco County School district office in Land O' Lakes, Fla., on July 21, 2020.Octavio Jones / Reuters file

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says the main obstacle standing in the way of reopening schools is "the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities."

A leading GOP candidate in this year's Virginia gubernatorial contest launched a campaign with ads promoting the #OpenOurSchools hashtag.

And House Republicans think school reopenings may be their winning issue in key races in the 2022 midterm elections that could help them recapture the chamber.

"As soon as we started last month, I made a big deal out of the fact that messaging has to be about schools as we go forward," said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It's the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed. Democrats are ignoring the science, and they're standing with their special-interest donors instead of the students."

Out of power and divided about their future, Republicans see an opportunity to begin winning back the suburban voters they lost under Donald Trump's presidency by capitalizing on widespread frustration with pandemic life and directing it at an old enemy: teachers unions.

Seeking to protect members, particularly older teachers, from contracting Covid-19, some teachers unions have pushed for no return to in-person learning until teachers can be vaccinated, while others have demanded additional safety measures — ranging from better ventilation to increased cleaning — before agreeing to a return.

There is internal debate in the unions over how aggressively to fight the reopenings, and they fully reject the idea that they are the ones preventing a return to the classroom, instead pointing to federal and state governments that have been slow to address their concerns.

Attacking the unions as standing in the way of educational progress is a classic conservative tactic that helped Republicans win over frustrated parents in Democratic-leaning states such as New Jersey and Wisconsin the last time they were locked out of power in Washington in 2009. It both unites the fractured GOP and is sowing division in some corners of the Democratic Party.

The politics have changed since a decade ago, when the school reform movement was at its peak and reining in teachers unions was favored by many Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, who was hung in effigy in a struggling Rhode Island school after he called for firing all its teachers.

The reform movement has lost momentum, public support for unions has climbed to an almost 20-year-high in surveys, and teachers found surprisingly robust support for strikes, walkouts and other protests for higher pay and better conditions in red states such as West Virginia and Oklahoma in 2018.

But the frustration over shuttered schools, kids being kept home and other Covid-19 restrictions are real and even some progressives say the unions are overreaching. (Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused them of wanting to "take over" not just the schools, but also the city.) And Republicans think they can channel that anger into a grassroots uprising to drive a wedge between suburban voters and the Democratic Party.

"I can tell you I have countless stories, both direct and anecdotal, about couples who are trying to pay the bills, who are trying to work their jobs. At the same time, they're also trying to be the teachers ... at home. And it's impossible," Emmer said.

"These people are, they're saints as far as I'm concerned," he added, referring to parents. "And by the way, their anger is growing."

The midterm elections are almost two years away, but Republicans are already using the issue to soften the ground in key swing districts in blue states such as New York, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Virginia, where Democratic leaders have clashed among themselves and with unions over reopenings.

In California, parents demanding schools reopen have sued Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is himself embroiled in a fight with the unions, while the city of San Francisco has sued its own school district to restart in-person learning.

"This is the suburban parent revolt," said Corry Bliss, a leading Republican consultant. "One of the reasons why I think the suburbs are back in play for Republicans is because the Democrats are simply unwilling to stand up to the (teachers) unions."

The American Action Network, a deep-pocketed conservative group, began putting up billboards and launching digital ads and robocalls last week in a dozen congressional districts represented by vulnerable Democrats. The ads highlight how much money each member received in campaign contributions from teachers unions and calls on them to back a House GOP bill to provide full federal funding only to schools open for in-person learning.

"Liberals in Congress — awash in teacher union cash — are picking the unions over America's kids," said Dan Conston, the group's president. "It's time for Congress to support safely reopening schools now."

Teachers unions are one of the strongest and most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party, with 98 percent of the $43 million they spent in the 2020 election going to Democrats, according to Open Secrets.

A recent study from Brown University found that "politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making," with districts in more politically conservative areas and ones with weaker teachers unions more likely to offer in-person instruction, regardless of the severity of the pandemic locally.

On Friday, the Biden administration released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for schools advising that teacher vaccinations are not a necessity for schools to reopen, so long as other Covid-19 mitigation efforts are in place.

The guidance comes after an earlier CDC study on schools in rural Wisconsin, which showed minimal coronavirus spread linked to schools. The report has been highlighted by Republicans as evidence that in-person learning is safe, though others have said it does not provide a direct comparison to schools in denser environments.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who runs the nation's second-largest teachers union and is a member of the Democratic National Committee, hailed the new guidance and said teachers want to get back to work as much as parents want them to — as long as it's safe for everyone.

"Our union started fighting to reopen schools last April," Weingarten told NBC News, citing guidelines the union put out in the early days of the pandemic and blaming Donald Trump and Republicans for failing to provide the necessary help.

"I just think this is a reckless and irresponsible exploitation of the fear and frustration that everybody feels right now," she said of the GOP attacks. "Instead of basically accepting that their standard-bearer really messed this up, they need to try to deflect blame."

A new AFT survey of union members released Tuesday found most teachers agreed that remote learning was not working as well in person and 85 percent said they would be comfortable to returning to school buildings if safeguards were put in places, such as masking, vaccination and better ventilation. Nearly a quarter said they have already been vaccinated.

President Joe Biden's stimulus package proposed to Congress includes $130 billion for school districts, which teachers unions say is necessary to pay for safety measures like better ventilation and hiring more cleaning crew.

As of now, teachers are eligible for vaccines in about half the states. The American Federation of Teachers has documented about 530 teacher deaths from Covid-19 through the end of December. Meanwhile, only a handful of states currently have orders either requiring schools be at least partially open. Most states have left these decisions up to individual districts.

Democrats and union leaders say they are unconcerned with the GOP strategy, noting widespread vaccination should allow schools to almost completely reopen before any major elections.

They point to a string of recent polls that show support for teachers unions has, if anything, grown slightly during the pandemic. Many Republicans, they add, are publicly opposed to Biden's stimulus plan, which they say would accelerate school openings.

"The fact of the matter is this pandemic happened on their watch. It's this bad because of their incompetence," said Kelly Dietrich, the executive director of the National Democratic Training Committee, which prepares candidates to run for office.

The first real test will come in November, when Virginians elect a new governor.

N2 America, a center-right nonprofit focused on the suburbs, found that opening schools is a top issue with suburban voters in Virginia. Its research found that "approximately two-thirds of these suburban parents think remote online learning is worse" than in-person schooling and that it will lead "to a multitude of serious negative long-term effects."

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who is not running for re-election, has called for some in-person learning to resume next month, but officials in Richmond have said they're not ready and the Democrats running to replace Northam have mostly sided with unions in calling for every teacher to be vaccinated first.

Pete Snyder, a leading Republican candidate in the field, has made the #OpenOurSchools hashtag the central theme of his campaign and the entire focus of his first two TV ads.

"I think Virginia is the beginning of the nationwide earthquake on this issue," he said.

"I'm not doing conservative red meat on this," he added. "This is just common sense."