Much as the Republicans are fighting their own internal battles between conservatism and cultism, the Biden administration faces its own. There’s one in the great Northeast, but thus far he’s managed to avoid anyone questioning him about it. Chicago, on the other hand, just smacked him in the face.
A growing consensus finds that children from less-advantaged backgrounds are falling behind academically because remote learning does not work as well for them as for kids from more advantaged families. These students are disproportionally minorities, especially so for Chicago’s student body. Roughly 80 percent of the 355,000 children in Chicago Public Schools qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, a factor that is often used as a proxy to measure a district’s population of low-income and working-class students. Staying out of the classroom will hurt children who can ill afford falling even further behind.
There is a litany of problems, from mental health to education lost that will never be regained, at risk in public education. When students go to city schools and come out the other end barely capable of reading or doing math, you have one problem. When the schools go remote, you have another, whether you want to blame it on poverty, disinterest or circumstance. But to the extent schools are expected to actually teach marginalized students who want to learn, they aren’t working.
The Biden administration understands this, which is why it released a statement last week calling for the reopening of K-8 schools within 100 days.
Teachers are calling a de facto strike without calling it that because their 2019 collective-bargaining agreement prohibits strikes. Yet the union says that if the district punishes teachers for their truancy, it would become responsible for their work stoppage. We wonder what would happen if kids tried that circular logic with their teachers to get out of detention.
Biden has called for $130 billion to help schools to reopen, even as schools across the nation, and in Chicago, have managed to do so.
“Students in over 130 private and parochial schools and over 2,000 early learning centers across the city have been safely learning in their classrooms since the fall, and we must provide that same option to our families who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to make remote learning work for their children,” Chicago Public Schools said. “We’ve seen grades, attendance, and enrollment drop significantly for many of our students in recent months, and the impact has been felt most by our Black and Latinx students.”
The reaction of the Chicago Teachers Union is unsurprising, and hardly unique. It’s happening in Fairfax, Virginia and Montclair, New Jersey, The president of the Pasco County, Washington, teachers union explains that the call for reopening schools is white supremacy. So what does Biden have to say to these teachers refusing to return to the classroom?
President Biden on re-opening schools: "I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that's in those schools maintaining the facilities."
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 25, 2021
On the one hand, that will take time and money. On the other hand, he didn’t answer the question. But then, how could he? Unions are not just a core tenet of the party, but a primary source of campaign funding. If the union says no, then what else can Biden do than murder a lot of words that say nothing and go nowhere? But then, there is another problem. What about the children?
Yet teachers unions, in Chicago and elsewhere, are holding the public education system hostage. Their petty defiance is not just cruel, but also contrary to both established science and the clear interests of families. Letting a class of government employees become this powerful should be treated as a clear failing of public policy.
Much as Republicans need to figure out whether they want to be the party of conservatism or the Cult of Trump, the Democrats need to figure out whether they want to be the party of public sector unions or the party of education, children and, most particularly, the party of marginalized children.
Before Biden was inaugurated, people came to his defense when he skirted the hard questions, the actual details of what he was going to do about much of anything other than “not be Trump.” He’s president now, and much as he’s inherited a terrible situation, that’s the job he ran for and won. That’s Biden’s burden.
Empty promises, that he’ll put his heart and soul into dealing with COVID, isn’t a plan. The public school children of Chicago and elsewhere aren’t going to get a second chance at second grade. The question isn’t whether the teachers’ concerns about COVID are understandable. They are. They are also addressable and have been addressed.
This is all happening despite the fact that schools can reopen safely, and have never been associated with significant COVID-19 spread. With teachers at the front of the vaccination line in many states, the already thin argument for continuing to traumatize children in the name of public safety is hard to take seriously.
But the unions have made no commitment to return to the classroom, not after vaccinations, not after HEPA filters and plexi partitions between six-foot separated desks, sanitized hallways and masks, masks and more masks. What will Biden do about it? There’s no needle left to thread. The kids aren’t getting any younger and the unions aren’t getting any more reasonable. Something has to give.