Public schools have historically played a reliable, vital role in American communities. That’s why, for many decades, Americans say they like and trust teachers and more than three-quarters give their own kids’ schools an “A” or a “B.”
Well, the way public school leaders and teachers have responded to the pandemic has seemed designed to shatter that trust. In Chicago, teachers who earn more than $78,000 for a 10-month year refused to show up for work, forcing students to stay home from school for several days. All this in a school district that requires universal masking and social distancing, is supplying 200,000 KN95 masks for staff use, offers in-school COVID testing at every campus, has spent $141 million on mechanical system upgrades, and where 91 percent of teachers are vaccinated.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks ahead of a car caravan where teachers and supporters gathered to demand a safe and equitable return to in-person learning on Dec. 12, 2020.
(Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
It’s not just Chicago. In the past week, school leaders have also shuttered schools in places like Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark.
As we approach the two-year mark of the pandemic, millions of parents in blue states and cities have learned they can no longer rely on their local public schools. Even the New York Times can’t help noting, “As has been true throughout the pandemic, most of the” renewed school closures are “taking place in liberal-leaning areas with powerful unions.” And when schools in these places are open, they require that students be masked for six or eight hours a day and won’t let them eat lunch together—even when local adults are going maskless to local bars, gyms, and Starbucks.
Faced with all this, some public school apologists shout, “Omicron!”
But given what we know about Omicron, schools should be open. This is the message offered by even those authorities most inclined to act like we’re still in April 2020. CDC chief Rochelle Walensky says CDC guidance and publications “provide the tools necessary to get these schools reopened for in-person learning and to keep them open.” Anthony Fauci says, “It’s safe enough to get those kids back to school.” President Joe Biden broke with his union allies long enough to agree, “We can keep our K through 12 schools open, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
Even Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned comparing herself to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, says, “There is no basis in the data, the science, or common sense” to close Chicago’s schools. This all takes on newfound urgency given the well-documented, devastating academic and mental health consequences of school closure and remote learning.
The front of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools on Jan. 5, 2022.
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, the union bosses shutting down schools aren’t even pretending there’s a principle at work beyond their convenience. Jesse Sharkey, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, compared school attendance to grocery shopping at a press conference on Saturday. Sharkey argued, “Everyone’s making a hard choice. People are making a hard choice about whether to go to the grocery store or not.” (He spoke while unmasked and less than six feet from several other union leaders).
While Sharkey is right that customers are free to choose whether to go to the grocery store during the latest COVID wave, that’s only because grocery workers, deliverymen, factory workers, and farmers are doing their jobs. If grocery workers don’t show up, customers are free to take their money elsewhere. The same should be true of public education.
There’s a simple principle here: If citizens are paying for an essential service and it’s not being provided, they need alternatives.
There are plenty of essential workers—cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, grocery clerks, nurses, and the rest—who’ve been doing their jobs every day for nearly two years. Many of these workers are parents who don’t have the luxury of staying home to supervise their kids. And, as much as firefighters might prefer to work from home, no one has suggested that it’d be good enough if they just provided some online tutorials to those confronting a house fire.
So, if teachers refuse to show up, what is to be done? The solution isn’t hard. State legislators should give parents funding to decide where their child gets educated. Whether through a school voucher or an education savings account, policymakers should empower parents to take their child’s educational dollars to a school that wants to serve them—whether that school is public or private, in-person or virtual.
It’s indefensible that so many parents had to spend much of the past two years pleading with public educators to do their jobs. That helped fuel an explosion of lawmaking that made last year the “Year of School Choice.” The early days of 2022 show that much more is needed.
Frederick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.