The Biden administration’s closeness with teachers' unions is facing fresh scrutiny after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Monday a new crackdown on the alleged threats and harassment of school officials and teachers across the country.
Republicans have raised concerns that it will be used against the free speech rights of parents, who have been especially vocal about school policies during the COVID-19 pandemic and about critical race theory being taught to children.
Garland’s announcement came just days after the National School Board Association, which represents more than 90,000 school board members, wrote a letter to Biden asking his administration to treat parent protests at school board meetings as possible acts of "domestic terrorism."
It’s the latest development in a string of policy decisions apparently influenced by teachers' unions since Biden assumed office, as he had promised during his campaign.
"You don’t just have a partner in the White House, you’ll have an [National Education Association] NEA member in the White House," Biden told the NEA in July 2020, referring to his wife, first lady Jill Biden, who is a member of the union. "And if I’m not listening, I’m going to be sleeping alone in the Lincoln Bedroom."
Biden received more contributions from teachers' unions than any other candidate during the 2020 election cycle by a wide margin. And what’s more than the monetary contributions of teachers' unions is their scope: The American Federation of Teachers has 1.7 million members, according to its website, and the NEA has more than 3 million members according to its site, making up well over half of Biden's popular vote margin of victory over former President Trump in November. Both unions endorsed Biden last March.
"Your efforts were critical in Joe's win," Jill Biden told the heads of the NEA and the AFT after Biden’s electoral victory in November. "Joe and [Vice President] Kamala [Harris] will not only listen to you, they’re going to make sure that your voices are leading this movement. They will fight for you every single day, and so will I."
Upon taking office, Biden has repeatedly bowed to pressure by teachers' unions regarding reopening schools for in-person learning. In May, AFT President Randi Weingarten revealed that the Biden administration's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "asked for language" in its school reopening guidelines.
The CDC guidelines released in February, while not in complete alignment with union demands with the inclusion of language saying COVID-19 vaccines are optional for educators teaching in-person and students must be 3 feet apart rather than 6, still included some verbatim wording from the AFT, according to documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request by the government watchdog group Americans for Public Trust and shared with the New York Post.
"This is normal rulemaking, frankly," Weingarten told C-SPAN on May 18. "This is what every administration used to do. The problem with the last administration is that they didn't do it."
In September, it was reported that the Biden administration tightened its masking guidance after the NEA threatened White House officials with publicly releasing harsh criticism.
Internal emails showed that the NEA sent a draft statement to White House officials that included harsh criticism of the CDC's masking guidance. But the teachers' union ultimately published a version with a much softer tone, and the CDC later clarified its guidance to indicate that everyone should be masked in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
Biden’s relationship with teachers' unions was further highlighted by Garland’s memo Monday night, which directed the FBI and U.S. attorney offices to hold meetings with federal, state and local law enforcement leaders within 30 days to discuss ways to combat what the DOJ described as an "increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools."
Tyler Olsen and Audrey Conklin contributed to this report.