Years ago, the administrators at a public library were upset that a large church had proposed leasing the building next door. The influx of churchgoers, they feared, would overburden the library’s limited resources. That always epitomized to me the mindset of the public sector.

Had the library been, say, a private bookstore or restaurant, its proprietors would be salivating at the new potential customers. To government workers, more “customers” means more work and too few resources. There’s no incentive for them to accommodate anything out of the ordinary.

That sprung to mind as California has been preparing for the school year amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom has delayed the back-to-school season in the majority of California counties. This decision wasn’t hard to see coming, given that Newsom is closely aligned with the teachers’ unions. In a sane world, one might expect any federation of teachers to want their employees to get back to work. In the current, less-than-sane world, the unions are far less enthusiastic about the prospect.

In a letter to Newsom and lawmakers, the California Teachers’ Association prattled about its guiding principle being the health and safety of students and educators, but its priorities seem a bit more self-serving. “California cannot reopen schools unless they are safe,” CTA wrote, but “many local districts and communities don’t have the necessary resources or capacity to maintain even the most basic prevention measures.” It went on to propose a detailed checklist that, basically, comes down to this: Send more state and federal money.

The union strongly objected to President Trump’s call for schools to physically open their doors. “We are deeply concerned that politics are being played with the lives of children and the educators who serve them,” intoned a group that has mastered the art of using “the children” as the props in their never-ending push for higher taxes, more teacher protections, and a host of political objectives that often are unrelated to public education.

The private sector has a technical term for employees who rather not show up at work until the employer meets a growing list of demands or who want to stay home until a variety of hard-to-reach political objectives are achieved: ex-employees. In the public sector, it’s nearly impossible to fire employees, and the agency must meet and confer with the appropriate collective-bargaining unit and hash out its demands, no matter how unreasonable.

The state’s recent budget deal kept the K-12 spending spigots open. Meanwhile, public school administrators and teachers continue to get their full pay and benefits no matter how long the lockdowns continue. Do you think that continuing paychecks might have something to do with their, well, lackadaisical approach toward reopening the schools? If grocery-store workers had the same deal, the country would have seen breadlines as early as March.

As Eric Boehm wrote in Reason, teachers’ unions across the country are using the COVID-19 situation as a reason to push for “a national ban on evictions, a moratorium on charter schools, an end to voucher programs, and the abolition of standardized testing.” Some unions are even talking, however vaguely, about potential “safety strikes” over school-reopening plans. In other words, unions are dragging their feet on returning, and using the crisis as a means to secure more funding and push a variety of left-wing political objectives.

In California, as the Southern California Newspaper Group noted, this has become a Catch-22 situation: “Officials don’t want to reopen classrooms, but they haven’t adequately geared up for distance learning.” The editorial highlights reports about school districts lacking 700,000 laptops necessary for online learning — even though the state had provided $5.3 billion extra for them to gear up for the long-expected delay in the school year.

Why do Americans put up with this nonsense? When will they realize that these districts operate for the convenience of their workers, and that no matter how much taxpayers give them it will never be enough for them to meet a basic level of competence? “The best way out of this mess: fund students, not the educational bureaucracy,” opined Larry Sand in City Journal. Indeed, but the teachers’ unions would never let anything close to that happen. In California, a union-friendly Legislature last year put new limits on charter expansion plans.

Whereas charter and private schools have readied themselves for distance-learning challenges, the traditional public schools might be stumbling their way toward a wasted school year. Public school students are an afterthought because they are not customers. School employees earn the same compensation whether or not the classrooms reopen. Until we learn that simple lesson about incentives, it’s foolish to expect a different result.

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