COMMENTARY: The perilous politics of opening California schools

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Four years of the Trump presidency and the calamity of Covid-19 is driving a political realignment across the United States, and the Golden State is changing too.

This shift, however, doesn’t pit Democrats against Republicans. It’s the grassroots pressure from parents demanding more leadership to open schools that’s forcing side-taking between students and the state’s powerful teacher’s unions.

While Democratic governors unite behind a call for open schools and rising stars like Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimundo boosted their political profile by keeping schools open, Governor Newsom’s late-coming plan to open schools led with a $2 billion package of incentives saying that teachers’ “love of teaching” would send them back into the classroom.

To beleaguered and exhausted parents who have watched their children’s love for learning whither after ten months of Zoom school, this all-carrot-and-no-stick stance by Newsom may appear to be politically tone-deaf.

Pre-pandemic, California’s parents were too often lumped into those who support charter schools (anti-union) or public schools (pro-union). The California Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union, which represents school staff, are by far the most powerful public employee force in Democratic politics.

Unless you’re the “charter candidate” — earning and keeping labor support is fundamental to raising the money and support you need to run a competitive campaign here in the most expensive state in the nation to run for public office. But Covid has changed that dynamic, driving a torrent of new Democratic, labor-supporting, public school parents into the politics of opening schools. Forced into an uncomfortable conflict with their local union, parents are demanding Democrats stand with them.

The peril of not recognizing these new fault lines is real. Newsom is facing a recall effort. It’s reasonable to ask — and impossible to know — how many enraged parents will sign the recall petition because Newsom is the highest-profile leader they can hold accountable for their child not being in school.

And Newsom isn’t alone. In at least one district (San Ramon Valley in the East Bay) School board members are facing recall elections for decisions to bring back distance learning. Parents’ anger is stoked weekly as superintendents share school reopening check lists with health measures required by their state and counties met, while “finalize labor agreements” remain unchecked.

Pressures to open schools are coming from different quarters. A distinguished educator has called for temporarily suspending local collective bargaining and instead having the state negotiate a single statewide contract with the CTA. Health professionals, pediatricians and equity activists are demanding an urgent end to prolonged lock outs citing the devastating impact on kids.

News articles about a surge of teen suicides blamed on closed schools makes it increasingly difficult for any elected official to stand on the sidelines. The conventional bromides of “what’s best for teachers is best for students” don’t hold in these unconventional times.

This week’s Centers for Disease Control report showing schools can open safely with basic PPE precautions and Newsom’s lifting of stay-at-home orders adds fresh pressure to open schools across the state’s nearly 1000 districts

Parents banned together under the banner of OpenSchoolsCA are rallying their communities with actions like sit-ins at Kamala Harris’ Berkeley elementary school to draw attention to the reopening issue, webinars with UCSF Covid experts and coordinated support for legislation like AB10, to commit to a timeline for opening schools.

How local and state elected leaders navigate school reopening will no doubt shape their political fortunes come election day.

Californians love their teachers and value labor, but forced to choose, parents will vote for the health and wellbeing of their children first, and for many, that means a safe and swift return to live in-person instruction as soon as possible.


Pat Reilly is a political strategist, entrepreneur and the parent of two students in Berkeley Unified School District.  

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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