Bipartisan anger over Chicago Teachers Union should be channeled into lasting change | #Education


OPINION:

Last week, the Chicago Teachers Union threw common sense to the wind and initiated a high-stakes game of chicken with the city’s public school system. The union voted not to show up for work in person — citing the omicron variant of COVID-19 as why. The stunt is the latest example of teachers unions holding students hostage.

In the short run, public officials — both Republicans and Democrats — need to apply a maximum pressure campaign to rescue the city’s children. And seemingly, they are, which has created strange bedfellows.


Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos predictably contends that children should be in school. But so does current Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Speaking to CBS’ “Face the Nation,” he noted, “even with omicron, our default should be in-person learning for all students across the country.” The White House has rightly weighed in as well. Press secretary Jen Psaki said, “long story short, we want schools to be open” and later added, “including in Chicago.”

The union’s decision has also drawn the ire of far-left Mayor Lori Lightfoot. It’s not difficult to understand her frustration. The school system has already used more than $100 million on virus mitigation efforts; teachers have a 91% vaccination rate; everyone must wear masks. What more could be reasonably done to protect staff and students from the virus?

The united front is refreshing but shouldn’t be a newsflash to those who pay attention. The data clearly shows schools are safe. When vaccinated, the chance of being hospitalized for COVID-19 is extremely low. The odds become more minimal for children, even when considering the latest variant wave. Although it’s more contagious, it’s generally milder.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that virtual learning is no replacement for in-person instruction. Ms. Lightfoot recently warned that “achievement gaps are real, and they’re affecting children of color at an exponential rate.” Studies exploring the issue more broadly from Yale and McKinsey & Co. confirm that to be true. And for context, about 9 in 10 Chicago public school students are non-white, and a majority are economically disadvantaged.

After spending 2020 behind a computer screen, test results for Chicago public school students dipped for all grade levels. Younger test takers — who have shorter attention spans and are more susceptible to Zoom learning fatigue — struggled the most. Only 18% of third-graders met or exceeded standards for math and reading last year — down from 33% and 39%, respectively, in 2019.

But simply abating the current crisis in the Windy City is much like applying a Band-Aid to a patient bleeding out on the operating table.

The education level of students living in the world’s superpower is stagnating and unimpressively average. And teachers unions are a barrier to improvement. Even Franklin Roosevelt and famed labor union leader George Meany acknowledged the inherent problems of public sector unions. As the former AFL-CIO president once noted, “it’s impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” Why? Because in reality, they are heavily involved with electing or defeating the employer who decides their pay and benefits (politicians).

Local and state governments need to rethink the power they give to unions. Policymakers should make alternative education options more prevalent and affordable. Lifting caps on the number of publicly funded but privately operated schools is a good first step. Expanding voucher programs that will help families afford other independent institutions is another.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey provides a good example of playing hardball with teachers unions to keep students in the classroom. Last week, the governor announced a new program that will provide parents that meet income requirements with $7,000 in education aid to spend on private schooling if their child’s school closes down.

The role and power of parent activism should also not be discounted. On top of the influx of children-first school board candidates in 2021’s planned elections, parents kicked sitting officials out of their offices throughout the year. From 2006 to 2020, Ballotpedia tracked an average of 22 recall efforts against 51 school board members. In 2021, 91 recall efforts were waged against 235 officials. 

The current outrage over the unions holding children and parents hostage shows that everyone — even Democrats — are fed-up with unions robbing children of their education and compromising their future. 

• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington.





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