Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

The Chicago teachers union has reportedly struck a deal with the Chicago Public Schools to re-open that city’s schools, at least a little bit, and avert the strike that was threatened if Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot followed through on her promise to lock recalcitrant teachers out of online platforms if they didn’t go back to their jobs. This all comes after months of the teachers union obdurately holding the city, its schoolchildren, and their families hostage with their demands to not have to go to work until some nebulous set of circumstances all perfectly align, invariably well into the future.

While not always as dramatic as the Chicago episode, it has been a similar story in several big cities around the country, with teacher’s unions bullying school systems into remaining closed, and the normally pliant Democratic mayors sheepishly begging them to let schools re-open.

In Denver, public schools finally made the initial tentative, and grudging, moves to restart in-person instruction at the end of last month, but not without resistance. On the first day, teachers union representatives staged “walk-ins” to protest going back to the classroom.

They don’t seem to be shy about adjusting the goal posts either. At first, the resistance centered on vaccination — it simply wasn’t safe, went the cry, to go back until teachers have gotten the shot. So, Gov. Polis announced that teachers would hop to the front of the vaccination line starting this week. Now the state teachers union boss says that that is only a small part of the bucket of demands to satisfy the conditions deemed suitable to go back.

The national teachers union president, Randi Weingarten, is no better, despite the New York Times’ recent effort to paint her as the reasonable voice in the cacophony who want to reopen schools.

“Schools will reopen. Maybe within 100 days. Certainly, it is imperative things be as normal as possible by the fall” she is quoted as saying. Elsewhere, she suggests it may be “weeks — or maybe months.” The recurring, tiresome theme echoed by teachers unions across the nation is that the timeline is asymptotic.

Meanwhile, at St. Mary’s Academy, a private Catholic school in Denver, classrooms have been in full swing since the Jan. 3. In fact, save for a few-week pause between Thanksgiving and Christmas, classes have been taught in-person since September. The school has implemented some common-sense precautions — classes and grades are well-siloed, and if someone tests positive, it is contact-traced, and the relevant classroom is quarantined. They have, as expected, had a couple cases reported, and the appropriate measures taken. But the place does not look like a MASH unit or field hospital filled with sick and dying teachers.

It is a similar story with Catholic (and other private) schools all over the country. These schools have been open, students and teachers in classrooms, teaching, learning, socializing, albeit with adjustments made to manage the impositions of the pandemic.

What is it that permits the Catholic schools the liberty to operate that seems to elude public schools? As a Catholic, I may be tempted to suggest divine influence; but the Church instructs us to pray daily to not be led into temptation, and that would be less than satisfactory to explain the successful in-person operation of all the other, non-religious, private schools. No, the secular answer is simply that these august institutions are unencumbered by the bullying coercion of the teacher’s unions, free, therefore, to turn their attention to other matters, like the education of the students in their care.

Parents are catching on, if the numbers tell us anything. According to an Associated Press-Chalkbeat analysis, public schools in 33 states have seen their enrollment numbers dwindle by 500,000 students since the 2019-2020 school year. Those half a million children are being educated in private schools, or in tutor-led “pods,” or homeschooled.

But the tragic fact is the same one that has always haunted education policy, and that is that those options are not universally available. Those who have the resources will enroll their children in whatever educational alternative offers the best chance for success. Those who cannot afford private school tuition, or private tutors, or the flexibility to properly homeschool, or who are not lucky enough to win the charter school lottery (or have one available nearby) are left only the option of the public school system. And that means subjection to the mercy of the teachers union, which is a grim position in which to be.

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.

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