America is learning the devastating power of teacher unions

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One of President Biden’s top goals when he took office on Jan. 20 was to get kids back in the classroom in his first 100 days.

Good — that’s where they belong. In Chicago alone, more than 340,000 students haven’t been inside a classroom for over 10 months. Kids are suffering academically, mentally and emotionally. Disadvantaged kids have been hit particularly hard. The achievement gap is widening.

Biden’s commitment has become prickly for the president. His initial goal is at odds with some of his most powerful financial backers: public-sector teacher unions. From Los Angeles to Virginia, the president’s plans are being thwarted as teacher unions block in-person learning.

There’s not a lot Biden can do about that. Public-sector unions are governed by state laws.

States determine if and when teachers can go on strike. States determine what sorts of issues – such as location of learning – must be negotiated between school districts and unions. States determine whether unions can walk out over alleged safety concerns. 

So other than mandating future federal COVID-19 funds be available only to districts meeting in person, Biden’s hands are somewhat tied by those unions that are supposed to be his allies.

But teacher unions may have taken it too far this time.

Parents are learning just how much power public-sector unions have over our schools. The nation is seeing that many teacher unions aren’t wielding their power to help kids. 

Teacher unions are different from unions in the private sector. When they negotiate, they often sit across from bosses they helped elect through millions of dollars in campaign contributions, with parents and kids excluded from the process.

When teacher unions demand that more money be spent on particular projects or benefits, they know the government can always try to get more from taxpayers. If a private-sector union succeeds in pushing an unaffordable contract, the business will falter, and union jobs will be threatened.

And when teacher unions walk out – as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was poised to do before reaching a delayed agreement with the school district on Feb. 7 – they walk out on kids. Parents can’t just choose a different provider as easily as they could if workers were striking at their preferred grocery store. 

The kids are left behind: nowhere to learn, no way to hold the grown-ups accountable.

So, when will kids get back to the classroom? In some parts of the country, they already are. In fact, seven of the 10 largest districts in the nation have had some form of in-person schooling at some point in the school year, and an 8th is nearing its start.

But not yet in Chicago, where the union provides a case study in how powerful teacher union monopolies can stand in the way of what’s best for kids. CTU’s stance against reopening went against all the hard evidence showing that it’s safe for kids to go to school with proper safety procedures in place. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said it is safe for students and teachers to go back to school while following safety protocols, even if teachers have not been vaccinated.

Many districts are working hard to ensure classrooms are safe for teachers and students. Here in Chicago, the school district has already spent $100 million on things such as better ventilation and air purifiers in every classroom.   

Still, CTU wouldn’t settle with the school district and continued changing its demands. Union leaders insisted all teachers be vaccinated ahead of other at-risk community members before returning. Kids were supposed to come back to school on Feb. 1. Now most elementary students won’t return until March 1. Whether high schoolers will return this year remains unclear. 

The union’s demands went well outside the scope of education. CTU included district support for rent abatement in its demands. It also placed defunding the police on the table, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Feb. 4. While kids are struggling academically and emotionally, the unions are using a pandemic to push their political agenda. 

So, what will it take to get kids back into classrooms? Though state law controls union power, the president should not let unions set his agenda. Biden should explicitly lay out his expectation that classroom instruction resumes as soon as possible.

At a bare minimum, the public-education system needs to make getting kids back to the classroom its number one priority. 

Mailee Smith is staff attorney and director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.

Tags American Federation of Teachers Chicago Public Schools Chicago Teachers Union coronavirus Joe Biden Lori Lightfoot Trade unions Trade unions in the United States

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