Biden’s Burden: Unions or Children?

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.

The Chicago Teachers Union says no.

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?

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.

23 thoughts on “Biden’s Burden: Unions or Children?

  1. DaveL

    Then again, what power does the President actually have to compel teachers to return to work? Their contracts are typically with local governments, their licensing is handled at the state level. While I’m sure many on the Left would welcome a new Democratic overlord who can and will accomplish any policy goal by decree, when push comes to shove Biden has demonstrated at least a working grasp of how federalism works.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s a good, and bad, question. The DoE provides substantial financial aid to public schools, so they have significant leverage over what local school districts do, and where they money comes from that ends up in teachers’ pockets. But should they?

      On the other hand, Biden may not have leverage, but he has a pulpit. He can use it for bully or bullshit.

      1. Keith (liaison to local BOE)

        Unfortunately, the amount in question from Federal Aid isn’t enough to move the needle in how most local BOE’s are funded and union contracts need to be paid whether the Federal dollars come in or not.

        The thrust of the post is spot on (and I’m at every BOE meeting in the trenches), but the better frame would be about the stranglehold that unions have put local leaders in.

        The union dollars that go to fill the coffers of Biden also go to those local BOE members (or at least enough of them to ensure the admins they like are hired).

        When that fails, their members are the one’s teaching y(our) kids and if you didn’t like ideology in the form of politics or religion entering the classroom, you’ll be amazed at how they can transform your kids’ worldview in the classroom (we got emails about going back to school where teachers told kids to bring two or three extra coats because windows will be open and it’ll be freezing. Also, that they should go to the bathroom before coming to school).

        Biden may not have leverage, but he has a pulpit. He can use it for bully or bullshit.

        Well, if he starts applying pressure on localities to open, it’ll be clear he reads your blog.

        1. SHG Post author

          Fed dollars are very different in cities than nice suburban districts. Local BOE elections aren’t usually very expensive, but Teachers Unions are big contributors to state candidates.

  2. Tom Doniphan

    Public employee union will win hands down. Why? The parents in Chicago are no longer needed to vote and their “children” will be forgotten. The P.E. union will get what they want whatever that is. In the words of I’m not Trump “Come on man”.

    1. SHG Post author

      The parents will be needed again in two years. Will they remember what happened to their kids or will other issues drive their votes?

      1. Dan G

        Many parents I know who live in Chicago won’t wait another two years; they’re leaving the city for saner suburban school districts. This “strike” is unique in the sense that they’re blaming it on COVID, but there’s a teachers’ strike about every 3-4 years like clockwork here, so really they’re right on schedule.

        1. SHG Post author

          If a parent loves their child and values education, I can’t imagine that they’re going to let their kid drown under these circumstances. I know I wouldn’t.

      2. Hunting Guy

        This is Chicago. The parents don’t have to register, fill out a mail-in ballot or actually go to a polling place. Their vote will still count.

  3. KeyserSoze

    It’s Chicago. Duh.
    It’s a Chicago union. Duh.

    Unions used to be for the working man. They at least stood for something in the past. Now all they stand for is corrupt union management. They have devolved into something much less than what they were, which is why union membership is drastically declining.

    Ask the Pipefitters if their endorsement of Biden has helped.

    Many kids are being home schooled or other alternatives during the pandemic and many parents are going to continue doing this or placing their children in some form of private school. Educational choice is a big issue and the Dems and unions oppose it.

    In places like Chicago, D.C., and other major cities its more important that the union gets its power and money from the incestuous relationship with the political class, than your kid gets educated.

      1. KeyserSoze

        You are of course correct.

        Only public sector unions have been gaining membership over the years. Private sector unions are loosing membership as more people realize they are better off without them and their problems. UAW has tried to unionize the Honda plants around here and have failed every time.

        I was in the public sector for decades and never was attracted to them. My wife was a public school teacher for awhile and joined the teachers union because it was the only place you could get liability insurance cheap.

  4. Steve White

    I had strongly favored school re-openings. In my urban Northern California county, there are 7 deaths reported among about 28,000 verified cases of all those under 30. But the ratio of 1 death per 4,000 cases is almost certainly actually far lower for the kids than that, and by keeping some kids at high risk kids at home it could be much lower still.
    But now, we have the arrival of the CoV2 variant which is causing a new epidemic in Brazil, just reported in Minnesota, so, pending more knowledge about how it will spread, who it will harm, and so forth, we can only make tentative plans.
    Sorry if I strayed from the legal/political but I think all the good people here need to be aware we might be in for a brand new epidemic, depending on how bad this new strain is.

  5. Richard Parker

    “Roughly 80 percent of the 355,000 children in Chicago Public Schools qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch”

    A number that doesn’t mean quite what everyone thinks it does. In the not-Chicago school district that I worked for, once 75% of the students at a particular school qualified for free or reduced lunch then 100% of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch and were counted as such. Chicago is certainly the same (but I have no idea of the cut-off percentage.).

    The parents will vote as they always have every two years.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    This raises the related question of the Los Angeles teacher’s union’s demand to “defund the police ” , abolish charter schools, and institute national single payer health care before returning to classrooms. That was over the summer so they may have become more realistic, except for the charter schools since they embarrass the union

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