Much has changed because of the coronavirus epidemic, but one of Chicago’s most important political problems has merely intensified. The Chicago Teachers Union continues to block progress for children, while cloaking its obstruction in claims that it is progressively pursuing the public interest. Now the CTU is trying to prevent public schools from opening for in-person instruction during the crisis.
Its stonewalling has been continuous, comprehensive, and aggressive. It has opposed the city plan to open schools even for children in kindergarten and early grades, where online education is at best of limited value. It opposes the plan for opening schools, as a new term begins in January, despite substantial evidence that, at least in their early years, children face little risk of infection and create little risk of transmission. The union has claimed that Chicago has a legal duty to enter collective bargaining over opening, even threatening to strike. About half of its member teachers failed to show up in person for the week to prepare for the new term. Three out of ten were still absent on the first day of classes.
The CTU justifies its stance with the current tropes of the left, tweeting that the “push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” This tweet, later taken down, provides a window into the ideology of the CTU, which pretends to act as a tribune of the people so as to mask its real objectives—advancing the interests of its members in having the least burdensome job for the highest possible pay and lowest risk of being held accountable for poor performance.
The reality of keeping schools closed is the exact opposite of what the CTU claims. Keeping children from the classroom will heavily affect minority students and children with single mothers, because they are disproportionately poor. On average, these children’s parents have less education and fewer resources available to keep their kids up to speed. Moreover, low-income parents, of which minorities and single mothers make up a disproportionate share, will be harmed more than most, because they will often not hold jobs that can be performed at home and thus may have to miss work because of the need for child care.
The damage that the CTU has wrought becomes clear when one compares the performance of private school teachers in Chicago during the crisis. Mostly non-unionized, they have largely shown up for work, and most private schools have stayed open for in-person teaching. These schools include not only richly endowed private schools but also Catholic schools that often operate on a shoestring in less than modern facilities. To be sure, these teachers face some risk, but likely less than that of grocery store workers and other essential workers, who have stayed at their posts during the coronavirus crisis.
The Covid-19 crisis replicates on a grander scale the costs that the CTU imposes on school children every year. Less than 18 months ago, the CTU went on its longest strike in decades, disrupting the education of children and work schedules for parents for three weeks. Its self-serving demands were similarly presented in the rhetoric of the common good. It insisted that the school district spend more money on social workers, even as it protected teachers who abuse students in school. It succeeded in getting a moratorium on charter schools, despite evidence that charter schools can improve education. The losers are low-income students who would benefit most from the higher standards that charters can provide.
Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker has encouraged schools to remain open statewide and Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been trying to open schools in Chicago. But they are not calling out the teachers’ unions for their obstruction nor raising public pressure to force the unions to fold. Their helplessness illustrates the grip that the CTU has on Illinois politics, especially the Democratic Party. Over the last 26 years, teachers’ unions have given $3.9 million to support Mike Madigan, the long-time Democratic speaker of the state house of representatives, now under investigation for corruption. The CTU even hired members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners as lobbyists. The union has negotiated fat, underfunded pension benefits for its members. As a result of this fiscal carelessness, the school system’s bonds are rated just above junk.
Yet the financial burdens, as bad as they are, pale in comparison to the CTU’s impact on Chicago’s children. The most important issue for poor students is raising achievement levels so that they can live more flourishing lives. Even in normal times, the CTU obstructs sane policies; now it is throttling at a time of historic crisis. The willingness of Illinois political leadership to ally itself with this guild makes a mockery of its pretense to being champions of the poor and minorities.
Photo: Charli Bandit/iStock