The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced it’s now safe to resume in-person schooling, providing appropriate precautions are taken. Yet, the Chicago Teachers Union voted Sunday to keep students home and continue all teaching virtual.
Jonathan Butcher, a Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy, joins the show to explain the role unions are playing in keeping schools closed in Chicago and across the county, and what should be done to ensure all students have the opportunity to receive a good education.
We also cover these stories:
- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that when it comes to a new COVID-19 relief bill, Senate Democrats could move ahead without Republican votes.
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there is a threat to the safety of members of Congress coming from within the House from those “who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress.”
- President Joe Biden scraps the so-called Mexico City policy, which prevents U.S. funding from going to international organizations that refer women to get abortions or provide them.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Jonathan Butcher, a Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy. Jonathan, thanks so much for being here.
Jonathan Butcher: Great to be with you.
Allen: So, Jonathan, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has told us that it’s now safe for schools to reopen, providing that certain precautions are taken.
But the Chicago Public Schools, they were scheduled to reopen for in-person learning on Monday. But just the day prior on Sunday, the Chicago Teachers Union said “no.” They voted “no.” “We’re not going to reopen yet. We’re going to continue to do distance learning.”
What was your response when you heard about how the Chicago Teachers Union really made this decision on behalf of all students in this very large county?
Butcher: Well, I’m not surprised. This is not the first time that the union has opposed reopening schools to in-person learning, nor is it the first time that unions over the past year have used the pandemic as a place to elevate their other political aims.
They have not been shy about talking about their goals outside of education-related policies and ideas. So this keeps the union in the headlines.
Allen: What are those goals? I mean, what is the argument here, first off, that the Chicago union is making for why they’re keeping the schools closed? And then kind of looking at the whole situation, what are those broader gains that I guess they’re seeking from them?
Butcher: Well, over and over again, unions have called for additional spending for the different kinds of either plexiglass or plastic or masks or cleaning solutions, things like that, to use in schools.
They have said that in order for teachers to feel safe, we have to have these, what are mostly reasonable things, to keep schools safe and clean and open. The issue is we already have them.
I mean, Washington added some $13 billion to schools last April in new spending. They did it again with almost $60 billion in new spending last December.
Here’s the thing, though, as of the end of September last fall, research from a former Heritage researcher and friend of mine, Dan Lips, found that some 85% of money from the first spending bill still had not been spent by schools.
Allen: Wow. I want to ask you about something one of your colleagues wrote, Lindsey Burke.
She wrote in a recent Daily Signal piece that, “The Chicago Public School District has argued the union’s refusal to have teachers report for in-person work is tantamount to a strike, which violates the collective bargaining agreement they have with Chicago Public Schools.”
Do you agree with this?
Butcher: Sure. Yes. I mean, this has been something that the unions have used to try to not call it a strike, when in fact it effectively is by keeping the schools closed.
I would add too that it’s not as though the district was saying they’re going to send all kids back at the same time for in-person learning all at once.
They were really only letting children with special needs and some of the very youngest grades go back first before they started to move back in elementary and middle school students. And as of at least a couple of weeks ago, I don’t believe that there was a specific calendar for high school students.
So, once again, the suggestion here that the district was somehow … not respecting the safety of teachers or [is] moving too quickly—here we are a year into the pandemic—is just false.
Allen: So what options does Chicago have right now? I mean, they’re looking at thousands of students that have been out of school for about 11 months now. Or do they have any sort of recourse to move forward and to say, “No, actually, we are going to send our kids back to school, no matter what the union says”?
Butcher: Well, curiously, the union has used this to their advantage with the legislature by working to try to get additional bargaining abilities.
The Illinois Policy Institute was reporting recently that that union is trying to get new authority to bargain over issues related to the workplace that they didn’t have before. So the union is already jockeying to use this to their advantage.
It’s hard to say really, I think, where the district could go. I think that what’s important to talk about now, today being part of National School Choice Week, is that this is another reminder for parents and policymakers that parents and children need additional options, especially in cases like these when the union is officially keeping kids away from in-person learning.
Allen: Yeah, that is so, so critical. And I do want to touch on school choice here in a moment. But first, Jonathan, I want to ask, besides Chicago, are we seeing this scenario play out in other counties across the country where unions are really standing in the way of students returning to the classroom?
Butcher: Unions across the country and in the national offices of the [American Federation of Teachers] and the [National Education Association] have been vocal about their opposition to in-person learning.
In fact, the AFT released a statement last summer where they said that they would not object to local chapters that decided to go on strike due to school reopening decisions or district reopening decisions.
I think it’s fair to be sensitive to what parents are looking for right now. A recent survey found that there is a bit of a racial divide between the parents that are ready for students to go back and who aren’t.
For example, 76% of white parents in this survey said that they are ready to send children back for in-person learning, while 56% of black parents said they were ready to go back.
So the issue is that for those who are ready—of which, overall, 69% of those who had the option to go back in person did so. So for those who are ready, that option should be made available to them. I think that’s central to what we’re talking about here.
Allen: Yeah. No, that is key, having that option. And that’s interesting to hear those findings.
Is there a precedent before COVID in years past for unions really getting involved in this way to say, “Teachers think it’s unsafe to teach for one reason or another, and so we’re putting a pause on in-person education”?
Butcher: Not related to safety, but unions have used strikes, especially in recent years.
I mean, it was 2017, 2018, where the strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma took place that closed schools for weeks. In some cases, arguing there over issues related to teacher pay and funding for public schools.
So, this is what unions do. They’re ready-made political action groups and they’re exercising those same abilities right now.
Allen: So then how does this relationship between teacher unions and public school districts need to change moving forward? How can this be improved?
Butcher: I think, for starters, that policymakers really should have no patience with unions who are abusing this point in time and their access to a platform to elevate their political aims.
You had a question a moment ago about where else is it happening in the U.S. There was actually a report out of Florida just a couple of weeks ago where the Broward County School Board found that there had been teachers who had gone to Jamaica for a wedding. Another had gone to a political rally. Others were in restaurants. And these were all teachers who had requested that they still have leave to teach at home and not come into school in-person.
So they were found to have actually gone to gatherings with large groups of people, even while they requested that they not have to go into school. So there should be no patience for that. This is inappropriate.
For those who do have medical needs, that’s something different. And that’s something that we should be allowing people to protect themselves and be there for safety. But when unions essentially cloud whether or not this is legitimate or not, it makes it very difficult to determine how seriously we should take those concerns.
Allen: Well, it does. It does exactly that. And I think it really … makes it feel like, “OK, who are the unions really standing up for in this case?” It’s clearly not the students. It’s clearly not the parents. And in many cases, it definitely doesn’t seem like it’s even really the teachers that want to go back that want to be able to do their best work, which they can only do in-person.
Butcher: Well, I think you’re exactly right.
I think that while we have evidence from surveys that parents are not satisfied with the at-home learning experience—that survey that I was talking about just a little bit ago, parents reported 38% of respondents were not satisfied with their remote learning experience at this point in the pandemic right now.
Those numbers are even higher for those who had a hybrid learning situation.
So the needs of parents are not being represented and thereby the needs of students as well. And like we were talking about with these political aims, I don’t think even the needs of teachers necessarily are the priority right now.
Allen: What are we learning about the impact online learning is having on students’ ability to actually learn and keep up with course material?
Butcher: I think the ad hoc scenario that districts have set up has clearly not been effective. Around the country from Virginia to California and places in-between, the share of students earning D’s and F’s has gone up. In some cases, that share is double what it was at the same time last year.
So we have grades going down. There was a survey from Pew Research conducted a couple of months ago that found that over 70% of parents from low-income households felt that their children were falling behind by this prolonged case of district online delivery.
Now, look, we know that virtual learning will work for some families. It will work for those families that chose it. I mean, this should be an option for the families that want it. But forcing everyone into it, just as the same with forcing everyone into an assigned school system, is not going to work for every child.
Allen: That’s got to be so painful for those parents. They’re for their kids. They want to see their child succeed. And yet, they’re seeing them struggle.
They maybe have a full-time job that they have to work. They can’t be there 24/7 helping their child walk through assignments, explaining things to them as a teacher could.
I want to play a clip from a recent video of a father who just got so, so frustrated during a county school board meeting. He’s from Loudoun County, Virginia. And he just was really honest and spoke his mind about the situation, about how he feels about it.
So let’s take a listen to this clip that was posted by Time Is Everything.
Father from Loudoun County: They’re a bunch of cowards hiding behind our children as an excuse for keeping schools closed.
You think you’re some sort of martyrs because of the decisions you’re making, when the statistics do not lie, that the vast majority of the population is not at risk for this virus. The garbage workers who pick up my freaking trash risk their lives every day more than anyone in this school system.
Figure it out or get off the podium because you know what? There are people like me and a line of other people out there who will gladly take your seat and figure it out. It’s not a high bar. Raise the freaking bar.
Allen: Jonathan, I want to get your reaction to that clip. What does it tell us about what’s really happening at home for parents and students, what they are really facing right now?
Butcher: Well, I think it’s indicative of the headlines that we do see in the news.
I think parents are being stretched thin right now, especially parents that are trying to work and they have kids at home trying to do school all day. Which, by the way, is anywhere from one-third to about half of families with school-aged children right now. So it’s still the case today that … perhaps as many as half of the households with school-aged kids are just doing a remote learning full-time right now.
And there are districts that are talking about doing this again in the fall. Even the hybrid scenarios like we were talking about before have not generated satisfactory results for many families. So I think the frustration level with those parents who have been doing this now going back to last March is pretty high.
Allen: What do you think we’re going to find when these kids actually do go back to the classroom? And who knows for some of them if they’ve really been consistently learning or, as we’ve seen, like you mentioned, so many are falling behind with grades.
Are teachers going to have to essentially repeat a whole year’s worth of material because very little learning actually took place in a lot of counties across the country this year?
Butcher: I think when it comes to issues of student achievement, this certainly isn’t helping things. And the national indicators that we have had, especially in the past five to seven years, have shown largely stagnant achievement across the nation’s report card in math and reading anyway.
So we were already at a place where the achievement of students on the best indicators that we have were just not not satisfactory. We shouldn’t be pleased with what’s going on. So I think it’s certainly going to make that worse.
It’s going to be some time before we know exactly what those numbers look like, because there’s still discussions about postponing or canceling the standardized testing for this spring, which is going to make it very hard for the teachers that need to know where a child is in September or in August of this year.
At the beginning of the next school year, where do they start and where do they begin? If we don’t have some way to figure out what students know or don’t know, it’ll make it tougher for teachers to meet student needs come fall.
Allen: As you mentioned earlier, we are right in the middle of National School Choice Week. How does this situation that we’re facing right now with these unions, with school boards, keeping schools locked down, really highlight the importance of school choice?
Butcher: I think unions have once again overplayed their hand when it comes to how they think that the public is going to react to their activities.
I would say too that this pandemic being unprecedented, certainly in this generation with the effects that it’s had on people’s lives, I think it is already through surveys last year demonstrating that parents are thinking more about homeschooling, learning pods—which parents are forming independently—sometimes of schools, as well as private learning options.
So we have a unique moment in time for state lawmakers, which is really where the work needs to be done for state policymakers to be looking at the needs of the families in their states and in the cities and towns and local communities in their states who need a quality learning option for their children today. They need it right now.
And so, now that makes school choice more urgent than ever. It’s never just been a policy idea, but today it’s more than even that. Today it’s essential.
Allen: Yeah. Well, we want to thank you for all the work that you do on the issue of school choice. Jonathan, where can our listeners find and follow your work?
Butcher: You can find more of what we’ve done on this issue of the pandemic and opening schools and others at heritage.org.
Allen: Great. Jonathan, thank you so much for your time.
Butcher: Thank you.