Teachers Unions Aren’t the Obstacle to Reopening Schools


«[Philadelphia] His school building is over a hundred years old, he said, and it already had rodents and cockroaches when the pandemic began. Students didn’t always have running water or soap in the bathrooms, he added.


Chicago is “incredibly segregated,” said Eichhorn, a member of the bargaining committee for the Chicago Teachers Union. “The parents that have been able to work remotely are largely white. Even though they are only 10 percent of our entire school district, they have the loudest voice.

”Data supports Eichhorn’s observation. Black and brown families are most likely to choose remote learning over in-person instruction. In a new survey from the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of adults want schools to reopen as soon as possible whether teachers are vaccinated or not. White, wealthy respondents are overrepresented in that group.


It’s easier, perhaps, to blame teachers unions for closing schools than it is to talk about inequality. Conservatives have been attacking unions for decades, and so have education-reform-minded liberals. But it doesn’t help anyone — students, teachers, or parents — to pretend unions are to blame for buildings being in disrepair. Public school districts often struggle for adequate funding; in a handful of states, funding levels still haven’t recovered to prerecession levels. [I think they mean the 08-09 recession. — John.]


Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board Education, school districts are still highly segregated. Black and brown families aren’t just more likely to have direct and deadly experiences with COVID; they’re more likely to live in communities with run-down, aging school buildings with ventilation systems that aren’t up to a pandemic. Academic outcomes were already uneven.


Ironically, unions have tried to solve these very problems. Months before the pandemic, Eichhorn and her union went on strike to demand more school nurses, more counselors, and a commitment from Chicago to create more affordable housing. After COVID, those demands look prescient.


… if they’re poor, they’ll fall even further behind in a race that was rigged by people above them well before they were ever born. So why not even the stakes? Why not clamor for better funding? What’s the purpose of education, after all — is it simply job training [or day care? — John.], or should it be more holistic, enrichment for enrichment’s sake? “We need to think more globally about all of our community members,” said Lee. “Does everyone have what they need? Health care, food, water? Settle those things before we worry about the next steps.”

The question of reopening schools ought to reframe the reopening debate altogether. Teachers unions were never the problem: It was inequality all along.»

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