Teachers’ Unions vs. the Poor

My children were meant to be back in school today, but they’re still home instead.

My children were meant to be back in school today, but they’re still home instead. They attend New York City’s excellent charter Success Academies charter schools, public schools that are mostly free of the city’s Department of Education and its associated bureaucracies and unions, all of which exist primarily to protect the interests of the adults who constitute them. At Success Academy, teaching comes first, so our students spend far more hours being instructed than the DOE students. For example, our schools open two weeks or so earlier than the DOE schools each year. The kids are happy to go back to see their friends, the parents get to return to their normal schedules, and more learning time benefits everyone.

Nearly all Success Academy schools are located within existing DOE school buildings, though. So our kids’ schools are locked up tight: The DOE won’t open them. Success Academy is ready to begin in-person learning, having established protocols implementing reasonable safety precautions. Success Academy is Following the Science — or it would, if the city bureaucracy it exists to circumvent could be circumvented this time and we could get into our locked buildings. The CDC:

Extended school closure is harmful to children. It can lead to severe learning loss, and the need for in-person instruction is particularly important for students with heightened behavioral needs. . . . We also know that, for many students, long breaks from in-person education are harmful to student learning. For example, the effects of summer breaks from in-person schooling on academic progress, known as “summer slide,” are also well-documented in the literature.

The DOE may never open the schools at all this fall. Who knows? The head of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, claims his squad won’t go back to work until it can be proven that every person entering a school building — everyone from children to visitors — has tested negative for the coronavirus. This is a fanciful goal and suggests that school employees alone are entitled to a level of protection that not even hospital workers enjoy. Mulgrew’s cries of “safety” are likely a pretext either for leveraging more goodies for his highly paid crew or to enable his teachers to glide on with the greatly reduced workload they enjoyed starting in mid-March. No recognition of the 1.1 million public-school students in the city as even an interested party registers in anything Mulgrew says.

Still, Success Academy students will do relatively well. Many DOE students may find that they are essentially taking correspondence courses this fall, as many of them did last spring. “School” for them means getting tossed a packet of Google Docs materials each morning while their teachers watch TV or head for the beach, but at Success Academy every student has been issued a new Chromebook and instruction will take place face-to-face on Zoom calls, with occasional breaks. The quality of online learning is impressive. Nobody at Success Academy is using the pandemic as an excuse to loaf. This is full-strength pedagogy, within the constraints of remote communication.

But only the lucky students who were admitted to the system via lottery have earned places at Success or the other charter schools. Other fortunate parents whose kids are in public schools in New York City and all over the country are “podding up,” as the neologism goes. A friend in well-shod Westchester County says a group of half a dozen or so parents has hired an excellent tutor, at a cost of $60,000, to teach their kids this semester in person, in a rented space. Westchester already has punitively high real-estate prices and property taxes, and no parent writes a check for $10,000 without a second thought, but in America’s bastions of the prosperous, sacrifice on behalf of one’s children is a deeply ingrained value. If the teachers’ unions block learning, wealthy parents will find a workaround.

The longer the schools stay closed, the greater the gap that will open up between America’s most and least fortunate families. A moment’s contemplation about what each group looks like ought to make you cross: Black families are disproportionately to be found among the less fortunate, and not a lot of them can come up with an extra $10,000 for something they always assumed would cost them nothing. There exist stark divides between rich and poor, between white and black — and the teachers’ unions who refuse to go back to school are making those gaps worse. Educators are often to be found at demonstrations, waving a placard for this or that progressive principle. Yet their current policy is to inflict disproportionate pain on America’s struggling classes. Will they practice what they preach, or is all their marching just for show?

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