School resumed in Chicago Monday, Jan. 3, but classrooms were empty by Wednesday. The local teachers union voted Tuesday not to show up for work, in favor of a virtual classroom. In response, the school district closed entirely and the mayor threatened to stop payment on teacher salaries. As the rhetoric heats up, folks wonder if it’s all just a bunch of hot air – or war in the Windy City. In this game of political chicken, who will turn aside first? Perhaps more importantly: Will there be enough students left for it to matter?
An Ill Wind Blows in Chicago
This particular battle began when the Chicago Teachers Union demanded “mitigations” in the school district – meaning, of course, measures to protect the teachers from contracting COVID. Mayor Lori Lightfoot maintained that schools were already safe, and so on Tuesday, Jan. 4, the union held a vote on whether teachers should return to class in person. That 73% of the members voting agreed to stay home was no surprise, since 80% of the 8,000 or so members on a virtual town hall call the previous week said they supported the idea.
During a press conference with Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, Mayor Lightfoot condemned the union vote, and warned that teachers who didn’t show up Wednesday would be put on a no-pay status. Both city and union officials committed to continuing negotiations – but both also refused to back down, and threatening salaries certainly seems like a good way to escalate the situation. With both sides digging in and making threats, a peaceful resolution doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon unless one side simply caves.
Parents had to wait as late as 11 p.m. to find out the results of the union vote – that is, whether they were sending their kids to school Wednesday or not – but Thursday’s closure was announced Wednesday evening at a much earlier hour. The city appears to be taking it one day at a time as of now, and it’s unclear when students can return to courses.
Roll Call …
Even before the pandemic, public school enrollment was falling across the nation. In both 2020 and 2021, however, a mass of students left public schools either for charter schools or to be homeschooled. “When I talk to my colleagues … across the country, there’s a lot of concern right now,” Martinez said in December. “Pre-pandemic, we were already seeing enrollment decline. So it wasn’t that we had stability. What happened during COVID, we just saw an increase in the number that didn’t come.”
In the Windy City, that lost enrolment totaled about 14,000 students in 2020 and 10,000 in 2021. Cities around the nation saw similar results. New York City lost around 38,000 in 2020 and another 13,000 in 2021, and Los Angeles saw a decline of 17,000 in 2020 and almost 9,000 last year.
For many, transitioning to homeschooling was a no-brainer after already having to find ways to keep a parent at home with the kids anyway. From 2019 to 2021, according to the National Educational Research Institute, the percentage of homeschooled students tripled.
Biting the Hand that Feeds
The longer classrooms are closed, the more parents will make that swap. There will always be those who simply can’t afford to stay home with the kids. There will always be parents who want their children reared by the state regardless of what they can afford. But the question that should give teachers unions and school boards night sweats is this: When all our petty bickering is done and the dust settles, will there be enough students left to justify our funding?
Tax dollars for public schools is an easy sell for most lobbyists and politicians. It’s for the kids, after all! But students forced out of the classroom because schools and unions can’t work together is just plain bad optics – especially going into an election cycle when a lot of those voters had to miss work to stay home with their children. Speaking of lost money … The three major pandemic relief laws passed by the 117th Congress and the Biden White House – the CARES Act, the COVID Relief Package, and the American Rescue Plan – set aside a total of $280.7 billion in tax dollars for keeping education going in the age of COVID, and $189.2 billion of that went straight to K-12 schools. That’s a lot of money spent just to watch educators and administrators squabble while classrooms remain devoid of students – another bad look for those currently in power and hoping to remain so.
~ Read more from James Fite.