Despite the recent Omicron coronavirus wave, public schools throughout the nation are mostly staying open. But the Chicago Public School system has shut down after the teachers’ union voted to demand virtual-only teaching for the next two weeks. This action harms children, particularly poor children, who often do not have other sources of educational enrichment at home. The data are clear that virtual school is a poor substitute for in-person schooling, particularly in the primary grades. Recognizing their duty to children, private schools in Chicago, including the poorly funded Catholic school system, continue to offer in-person instruction.
It’s unclear how long this shutdown will last, but whatever the duration, it provides further proof of the iron grip that the Chicago Teachers Union has on the city. The CTU is one of the nation’s most militant unions, having closed schools in a two-week strike in 2019 and forcing them to go virtual for almost the entire 2020–2021 academic year.
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot rightly notes that closing the schools is unjustified and breaks faith with the children whom teachers have a responsibility to educate. She is also correct in saying that closing schools will only increase the achievement gaps between poorer and wealthier students. The school system has spent $100 million making school facilities safer and improving air-filtration systems. Chicago’s commissioner of public health has also pointed out that the Omicron variant does not pose a substantial danger of serious illness to children or to vaccinated teachers. For these groups, it is more on par with a serious flu outbreak, for which schools are rarely if ever shut down.
True as these observations are, they just show how little facts matter in the world of power politics that the union inhabits. A study has shown that the most important determinant of school closures in a region during the pandemic has not been the severity of illness in the area or various demographic characteristics, but the strength of the teachers’ union, as measured by four factors—whether the state has a right-to-work law, the state ranking of union strength (using the Fordham Institute’s measure), the share of unionized employees at the state level, and the share of unionized employees at the county level. According to the Fordham Institute, the CTU is a Tier One union in terms of power. Illinois has no right-to-work law and Cook County has a high proportion of unionized employees. As a result, the CTU is in a powerful negotiating position. And what it wants in this case is reduction of risk, even if the level of that risk is already reasonable and comparable to what other workers in stores across the city tolerate. Even more importantly, by forcing Chicago Public Schools to back down, even for a short time, the union also wants to make clear to management that anything important in the system must be cleared with it first.
Chicago is a monolithically Democratic city, and Illinois is a substantially Democratic state. Those political facts also greatly limit the relevance of the actual facts. Yes, school closures were a factor in the recent election of Glen Youngkin and other Republicans in Virginia, but the Old Dominion is much more of a swing state than Illinois, where Democratic politicians have more to fear from the teachers’ union and other public-sector unions than from disgruntled parents. As a result, the most powerful Democrat in Illinois, Governor J. B. Pritzker, has made no effort to call out the union. In fact, despite the union’s lack of cooperation during the pandemic and recent strikes, Pritzker supported and signed into law two provisions that will increase its power. The first expands the issues over which it can bargain to include matters beyond pay and job security. The second creates a new governing structure that will take power over the schools from the mayor and give it to an “independent” board. The union will have more influence over elections to this board than mayoral elections—it’s easier to dominate an election on a single issue than a mayor’s race, where other political interests come into play. The governor’s action makes clear that he values the clout of the CTU more than improving the performance of Chicago’s public schools.
At some point, the pandemic will dissipate—but the power of the CTU will endure until Illinois ceases to be a deep-blue state or the coalition that makes up the state Democratic Party is transformed.
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