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How School Governance Is Failing the Test of COVID

The standoff between Chicago’s mayor and teachers’ union is raising issues ranging from the effective use of federal funding to how much we really care about our front-line workers.

Teacher Stuart Abram holds a sign in support of the Chicago Teachers Union before a caravan Wed., Jan. 5, 2022, the first day that classes were canceled amid the dispute over COVID-19 safety measures.
(John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
UPDATE: On Jan. 10, the Chicago Teachers Union’s governing body approved an agreement to allow in-person classes to resume on Jan. 12. The agreement includes conditions by which individual schools with high rates of staff absences and students in quarantine or isolation would return to remote learning.

The fight between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot over whether teachers should return to the classroom amid spiking coronavirus cases illuminates larger and complex problems in governance, education, health care and whether the nation cares about protecting its front-line workers. Probing the deeper meaning of the dispute surfaces larger problems for public officials, such as how to effectively draw down federal coronavirus relief funding committed to education, governing school systems and respecting teachers.

Let’s start with governance: Should chief executives of local governments oversee school systems in the first place? The models for K-12 systems vary from city to city. As an example, the Atlanta school system was under the mayor and the old Board of Aldermen until it was changed in the late 1960s to give communities more local control. This was the same for Washington, D.C., until 2007 when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, with the support of the City Council, wrestled the system from an elected school board and put it under the control of a chancellor appointed by, and accountable to, the mayor. Mayors control the schools in cities as varied as New York and Jackson, Miss. And some states — most notably Michigan, using its emergency powers — have temporarily taken over troubled local school systems in recent years.

In all of these instances, I can't find any evidence that suggests that having the schools run by mayors, governors or their appointees has been the solution. Educating urban and rural students is a huge challenge for all school systems, regardless of the governance structure. But the problem of effectively educating students seems to be more a question of funding and parental involvement: It costs more to educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Are we willing to pay the costs? And too many parents don’t have jobs that offer paid leave, which would allow more opportunities for them to be involved. Elected officials who support a policy of mandated paid leave have not shown the muscle needed to get it through Congress.

In Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot is arguing that she has an obligation to look out for the larger interests of all residents, especially parents who would face hardships if the school system doesn’t reopen quickly and return to in-class learning. The union cares only about the welfare of teachers, she argues. I do not believe that the welfare of teachers and that of students can be so easily separated; they are inextricably linked. Teachers — not school boards and certainly not mayors — are the facilitators of learning. If we say we care about our children learning, then we must care about the welfare of teachers too.

Another problem illuminated by the Chicago standoff is the difficulty of cities and states to draw down on federal coronavirus relief funds effectively and quickly. The Chicago Public Schools budget for this fiscal year is $9.3 billion. Only $516 million of the $1.8 billion allocated to Chicago by the CARES Act is in this year’s budget, although the system has three years to spend the rest. Georgia has approximately $1.4 billion left to spend on education. All told, Congress allocated more than $190 billion to help schools remain open and mitigate the educational effects of the coronavirus, but the bulk of the money has yet to be spent. If more of the funding had been drawn down and used to install new ventilation systems and hire more substitutes so teachers who come down with the virus could fully recover, perhaps more schools would be able to reopen.

And even if all of this was done, there remains a larger question: How much, as a society, do we care about the safety of essential workers? Over the holidays, I nervously encountered many maskless shoppers moving about without concern for other customers or workers serving them. Teachers are better organized than most front-line workers, so they can bring awareness to the risks that the coronavirus still poses to essential workers. It seems a bit disingenuous and way off base to attack organized labor for fighting to protect the health of front-line workers.

Heading into our third year of dealing with the coronavirus, COVID-19 continues to take the lives of more than 1,000 Americans every day, and too many among us have prolonged the misery and made matters worse by refusing to heed sensible medical advice such as getting vaccinated and boosted and following common-sense guidelines such as wearing masks, getting tested and isolating ourselves when symptomatic. If we are to reopen schools safely for in-person learning, school systems must find legal ways to draw down federal funding quicker. And Lightfoot and other mayors need to understand that forcing teachers to return to their classrooms despite their legitimate fears for their health would be a pyrrhic victory at best: There will be no winners in the end and, sadly, the children will suffer the most.

Reflecting on my days as a teacher, I recall that my students once gave me a plaque that read: “It is too bad that the people who really know how to run the country are busy teaching school.” Just thinking of the quote warms my heart, and I don’t recall ever having read a quote on a plaque or mug that said the opposite — that politicians are too busy governing to become great teachers. Let’s keep it that way.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Government and education columnist
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