New leader pushes teachers union to take on social justice role
By Erica L. Green
Becky Pringle was racing through her hometown to her fourth event one day in September when her staff alerted her to a looming controversy.
Fox News was preparing to publish emails between the White House and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that the CDC had continued to advise masking in schools last spring out of fear of a public showdown with Pringle, head of the nation’s largest teachers union and the highest-ranking Black labor leader in the country.
The story seemed to affirm the most fervent criticism of her union, the National Education Association, in recent months — that it had too much control over school-reopening decisions during the coronavirus pandemic and was wielding outsize influence in the Biden administration. Pringle shrugged it off with a single-sentence tweet: “It’s no secret we want to keep our students and schools safe.”
Under President Joe Biden, teachers unions have reemerged as power players in shaping federal education policy after largely being sidelined during the Trump administration. The NEA, in particular, has enjoyed increased visibility: Jill Biden, the first lady and a longtime educator, is a member. On the same day the Fox News story published, Biden, during remarks honoring labor unions, slipped in a joke that in the minds of critics has taken on a double meaning: “I sleep with an NEA member every night,” he said.
Pringle’s favor in the White House reflects a turning point for the NEA. The 3 million-member organization is normally overshadowed by its counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers, even though it has nearly twice as many members. Because the AFT represents many of the nation’s large, urban school districts, it has long wielded considerable power in Washington. At the same time, its lack of term limits has made its high-profile leaders more like monarchs — its current president, Randi Weingarten, has served for 13 years.
Pringle quietly ascended via Zoom in September 2020 to her three-year term as president of the NEA. Since then, she has been unapologetic about the fact that she has “leaned into” the union’s new spotlight. She has often proclaimed that Biden has drawn from the “NEA playbook” to shape policy goals, such as prioritizing teachers for vaccination and securing record levels of school funding in COVID-relief legislation.
And she has no regrets about the union’s influence in conditioning school reopenings on more safety measures, including the CDC guidance, and resources that would stretch beyond the pandemic. “There’s no way to know how many lives were saved,” Pringle said, “but I do know this for sure: The things that we have now, we would not have if we hadn’t fought for it.”
But some political observers predict that Biden’s close relationship with the teachers unions could backfire.
“I don’t think the unions are playing well when we’re seeing urban and suburban parents not particularly happy about what’s been happening in schools the last 18 months,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
What motivates Pringle, she said, is a longtime need that is ever more pressing now: to “reclaim public education as a common good, and transform it into something it was never designed to be: racially and socially just, and equitable.”
She sees both the pandemic, which exposed gross inequities that have plagued the nation’s education system for decades, and the presidency of Biden, who has pledged to make equity a cornerstone of his policymaking, as opportunities to achieve that goal.
Already, Pringle’s agenda has plunged an organization that has historically tiptoed around racially fraught policy debates — it did not even take a position on Brown v. Board of Education — headfirst into the racial reckoning unfolding in the nation’s public schools.
This year, the NEA published its Racial Justice in Education Resource Guide, which advises teachers on how to directly address issues such as white supremacy, implicit bias and acknowledging how race influences their work. Over the summer, at the union’s representative assembly — where Biden addressed the group, calling the NEA “indispensable” — delegates voted to pour $675,000 into measures to “eradicate institutional racism” in public schools.
In response to growing protests against teaching students about the legacy of systemic racism, which conservative groups deride with the umbrella term “critical race theory,” the union also began an “Honesty in Education” campaign that supports teaching “truthful and age-appropriate accountings of unpleasant aspects of American history.”
Pringle’s platform has been met with skepticism from critics who believe that for at least the first year of the pandemic, the union used its power to prioritize the demands of its predominantly white members over the millions of Black and marginalized students who disproportionately suffered during prolonged school closures.
Erika Sanzi, director of outreach at Parents Defending Education and a former teacher and NEA member, said a photo of Pringle and Weingarten posing with Jill Biden on the president’s second day in office — while many students remained isolated at home — captured Pringle’s biggest challenge: the perception that the union prioritizes power.
“For me, it was a quintessential snapshot in time of what I have always believed,” Sanzi said. “The union is, and will always be, for adults. It will never be for children.”
Although she left the classroom in 2008 after teaching middle school science for more than 30 years, Pringle, 66, still presents like a teacher. She is measured and methodical. You will not see her banging on the door of the Education Department like her predecessor or showing up regularly in news clips like Weingarten. She speaks in long monologues, not sound bites.
Her advocacy for equity started as a parent and teacher in suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she publicly protested that her son’s kindergarten class had 33 students. As a local union leader, she led her affiliate to take action when she noticed that her students of color were not in advanced science and math courses. As vice president of the NEA, Pringle was co-chair of the union’s task force to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
Pringle was in elementary school when Philadelphia was beginning to wrestle with the issue of desegregating its public schools. By the time she tested into the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls, known as Girls High, she felt its effects. When she chose math and science as her majors, her counselor told her it might be “really hard.” She went home and told her father, who marched her back to the school to ensure that she would get the majors she wanted.
On a recent visit to Girls High, Pringle told the young women about how she was rejected from a gymnastics and dance team. Later, a spot opened up. She tried out again and made it. The gym teacher apologized that she had not made it the first time, telling her, “We didn’t see you.”
“That changed the trajectory of my life,” Pringle told the girls. “I’ll never allow anyone to not see me again.”