BLOG: Education Secretary’s Back to School Tour Celebrates Teacher Union Bosses and Failing Schools

by Angela Morabito

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona embarked on a Back to School bus tour spanning five states, including school visits alongside teacher union bosses Randi Weingarten and Becky Pringle. How ironic that Cardona celebrated  going back to school with the two people who arguably fought the hardest to keep schools closed.

But the irony doesn’t stop there: For a bus tour called “Raise the Bar,” it celebrated school districts that have done nothing of the sort.

The tour began in Topeka, where only 11% of public high school students are proficient in math, and fewer than 1 in 5 is proficient in reading. It continued at a St. Louis public middle school where 16% of students are proficient in reading and 12% in math. And on Wednesday, Cardona visited an Illinois elementary school where more than half of students are chronically truant (defined as missing more than 5% of school days in a year without a valid excuse). Reading and math proficiency rates there are under 20%.

Cardona also highlighted schools that kept their doors shut far longer than necessary. The early childhood center he visited with NEA President Becky Pringle belongs to a district that did not offer a full-time, in-person learning option until late April 2021. Public schools in Rochester, Minnesota, where Cardona visited Friday morning, did not open their doors to high schoolers until early April 2021.

To be clear, these dreadful statistics are not the fault of students trapped in a failing system or teachers who show up every day and attempt to do their jobs in an impossible situation. The blame lies with a system propped up by teacher unions and a public education establishment that wastes millions of taxpayer dollars, stands in the way of school choice, fails to hold bad teachers accountable, hamstrings good teachers with red tape, and shuts parents out of the educational process.

It would be one thing if Sec. Cardona visited these schools on a mission to fix enduring problems, reverse massive learning loss,  and re-orient them towards excellence. But the tour announcement set a decidedly different tone: “I’m looking forward to lifting up great models in education and highlighting how our country benefits when we work together to invest in our children and young people – the future of our nation,” Cardona said.

There are lots of schools with truly “great models in education” that truly Raise the Bar, but you won’t find many of them on the tour itinerary. The Secretary isn’t visiting a single private school, religious school, microschool, or homeschool co-op, despite the rise in popularity each of these options has seen in recent years.

These omissions do not happen by mistake or by oversight. They are intentional. No good ally of the teacher union bosses could be caught admitting that nonpublic schools, in their many forms, can be life-changing for students whose government-assigned schools don’t meet their needs.

Nor could such an ally be seen addressing the shortcomings of the public school system. To keep the teacher union bosses happy, Sec. Cardona may not admit, let alone address, the fact that school choice programs are popular and growing in number and in scope. He must also ignore the pivotal role teacher unions played in keeping schools closed far longer than necessary.

If the Department of Education really wanted to celebrate and foster excellence, it would have either addressed the need for deep systemic change in failing school districts, highlighted the bright spots in the educational landscape, or both. It could elevate schools that have successfully reversed learning loss and help other schools follow their example.

America’s students deserve education leaders who confront failures head-on, rather than pretending they do not exist while smiling for photos next to the very teacher union bosses who have put us in this situation in the first place.