With Democrats barreling ahead in using the parliamentary tactic of budget reconciliation to advance their coronavirus relief agenda, top Senate Republicans indicated Wednesday they plan to hammer President Biden and his party over the slow reopening of schools across the country.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others attacked Democrats over their alliance with teachers unions, which have offered widespread resistance to efforts to get kids back in classrooms. The unions, they said, have done significant harm to children all while pushing patently unreasonable demands.
“Despite heroic efforts from students, parents, and teachers, so-called ‘remote learning’ has proven a poor substitute for the real thing,” McConnell said in a floor speech Wednesday. “But in the places across America where public education depends on the whims of powerful public-sector unions, the best interests of children have often come last.”
He said that not only have remote learning efforts hurt students, but they’ve disproportionately harmed those who are “most vulnerable, including lower-income households, students of color, and students with special needs and their families.”
McConnell also accused Democrats of caving to union demands rather than following the science they’ve emphasized is key during a pandemic.
“Dr. Fauci, whose expertise was supposed to guide the Biden Administration’s whole approach, said last week, quote, ‘we can keep the children in school and get them back to school safely,'” McConnell said. “Federal funding is no obstacle here. That’s more goalpost-moving. Congress has poured more than $110 billion into making education safe. … Apparently, big labor’s talking points have already displaced Dr. Fauci as the White House’s go-to source.”
“The president’s chief of staff keeps saying we need even more massive federal funding before teachers can go back. There’s no scientific basis for that,” McConnell added. “The goalpost-moving doesn’t stop with money. In several places, these unions sought to elbow toward the front of the line for vaccinations only to turn around and say, thanks for those vaccines, but don’t think these will necessarily get our folks back in the classroom anytime soon.”
Democrats meanwhile have accused Republicans of holding out on money that could go to schools to help them open in person, as well as money for local governments and other sectors of the economy they say is badly needed.
“The $1.9 trillion budget resolution is designed to meet the needs of a country that has been devastated by disease and recession for nearly a year,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.N.Y., said in the Senate Wednesday. “Secretary Yellen told the Democratic caucus yesterday that it is her belief that if Congress fails to dedicate the necessary resources to meet the needs of the American people and survive this crisis, we will see long-term scarring in our economy, and our country would be mired in the COVID crisis for years.”
McConnell during his floor speech previewed Republicans’ plan to hammer Democrats on education and other issues during the upcoming debate under budget reconciliation procedures Democrats have invoked to push through a coronavirus stimulus. In the coming days, there will be 50 hours of Senate floor debate on the coronavirus stimulus plan followed by what’s called a vote-a-rama. During the vote-a-rama, the Senate will be forced to vote on potentially dozens of amendments, and McConnell said he plans to force Democrats to cast votes on a number of hot-button issues, including education.
“We’ll be getting senators on the record about … whether generous federal funding should pour into school districts where the unions refuse to let schools open,” and more, McConnell said.
That promise was fulfilled minutes later on Wednesday when Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced an amendment to the budget resolution that would restrict federal money for school districts that are keeping kids out of classrooms.
“In spite of overwhelming evidence that schools can reopen safely, partisan advocates are using children’s education as a cudgel to push their radical agendas,” Hawley said in a statement along with the amendment. “The effect on children and working-class families has been absolutely devastating. The federal government should put an end to this two-tiered education system for the haves and the have-nots by incentivizing schools to safely reopen.”
And minutes later top McConnell ally Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, detailed a story of a boy who was nearly driven to suicide by remote learning.
“We know the impact is now purely academic. There’s also a serious mental and emotional toll,” Cornyn said. “The Texas Tribune recently shared a story of one student, a boy they referred to as Jordan. He was a student at Frisco Independent School District. And like kids across the country, he struggled with the challenge of virtual learning. This fall, his normal As and Bs dropped to Fs, and the further he fell behind, the harder it was for him to catch up.”
Cornyn continued: “In October, Jordan opened up a Google doc and typed an absolutely agonizing message. He said, ‘Give me 10 good reasons why I shouldn’t kill myself here.’ And when you think I can’t get any more heartbreaking, it does. The list was blank. An 11-year-old boy felt so lost and defeated he couldn’t come up with a single reason to continue living.”
The IT staff at the school noticed the issue and ended up getting the boy mental health treatment, and he is now back doing in-person learning and healthy, Cornyn said. But the senator said Jordan’s “experience is not unique,” before reciting grim statistics on children’s mental health.
Biden before assuming the presidency promised that he would get children back in schools during his first 100 days. But teachers’ unions across the country have resisted efforts to get children back in schools by local governments, and even threatened strikes.
“I know this has presented a dilemma for President Biden because in this case, the science is at odds with a key group of his supporters, which are the teacher unions,” Cornyn said. “Mr. President, the science is clear. The appropriate precautions are taken. It’s safe for our schools to reopen. And again, we’ve provided tens of billions of dollars to support safe reopening. … The administration shouldn’t try to distance itself from the president’s 100-day promise. It should do more to encourage a safe return.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Republicans’ attacks over school reopenings.