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What's Wrong with Public Schools? It's the Unions

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

To understand what's gone wrong with big-city public education -- where militant teachers union bosses dictate urban school policy and politics -- just look to Chicago and the saga of Sarah Chambers.


Her embarrassing story has gone worldwide. But it does have a message.

It tells public school parents who want their kids back in school, and property taxpayers, everything they need to know:

That they don't count. And their children don't count.

Which is why some parents are leaving shutdown cities like Chicago to find places where their children can benefit from in-classroom learning rather than be dumbed down by Zoom instruction, which fails the kids.

And it is another reason, for the sake of all kids -- but especially low-income children trapped in large, substandard public school systems -- that there must be real school choice.

Chambers is a Chicago Teachers Union leader who was part of a union delegation that visited Venezuela in 2019 and praised its socialist government. On her social media accounts -- which were under Sarah4Justice before she deleted them -- she repeatedly posted entries telling teachers to stay out of classrooms and thwart Chicago school officials' plans to reopen this week.

CTU officials have insisted it is all about saving lives during the pandemic.

As first reported by WGN-TV's Ben Bradley, hours after another of her protestations she took an embarrassing selfie while poolside in sunny Puerto Rico and posted it on her Instagram account.

Chambers was lying on her stomach, wearing a floppy sun hat. She was beaming and said she was going to enjoy some delicious seafood.

"Then we are going to old San Juan to get some yummy seafood mofongo! We have an entire private Airbnb house to ourselves."


Is mofongo tasty? I certainly hope so. I prefer lemon, olive oil and oregano. But I've learned that mofongo is actually a soup made with shrimp, rice and tomato sauce. I'd love to try it.

Chambers wore something else besides that floppy sun hat: She wore the extreme arrogance of the CTU, where she was on the executive board. She's reportedly no longer on the board, and she has issued some kind of apology and suspended her social media accounts.

I'm not writing this to pick on her. I respect teachers. I married one. But until union members wake up and challenge the militant CTU leadership that has led them and hundreds of thousands of students astray, this disaster will continue.

Chambers made a stupid move, yes. But she's a special-education teacher and wouldn't have entered the field without caring for special-ed students. Yet she should know better because children who suffer from learning disabilities have been among those most hurt by the loss of in-classroom instruction during the pandemic shutdowns of public schools.

More than half of Chicago Public Schools teachers who were expected to return to school on Monday did not show up for work.

Some teachers defied their militant union bosses and did go, knowing they should be in the classroom. They care about their kids.

Teachers know that oftentimes, a public school teacher is the only adult who really cares for the kids.

But more than half not showing up? That's unacceptable.

The union leaders prattle on that they're concerned about the lack of what they say is adequate COVID-19 protection. They once insisted that they "follow the science" in urging public schools be closed.


But now science tells us a different story, that children are not major transmitters, that the best place for kids is in the classroom, that remote learning is a failure, and that many students -- especially low-income minorities -- are being lost.

Supermarket cashiers go to work every day. Store managers like my brother go to work. Cops go to work. Nurses, paramedics, firefighters, doctors, streets and sanitation workers, bus drivers.

Are all of them less human or worthy than a teachers union boss chowing down on mofongo?

One study, now a bit outdated, showed at least 39 percent of Chicago Public Schools teachers sent their own kids to private schools. I figure the number is probably higher today.

Those schools, for the most part, have been open, either fully or in some hybrid fashion.

Many Democratic politicians who kowtow to the power of the teachers unions also send their own children to private schools.

In Chicago, the teachers union leadership hones its image as political intimidators. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has caved to them before, giving teachers 16 percent pay raises over five years.

But Chicago police are still waiting for their contract.

To illustrate the reach of CTU political leverage, more than 30 Chicago aldermen signed a letter of concern supporting the teachers union against the Chicago Public Schools.

"Why the concern now?" CPS boss Janice Jackson asked on Tuesday. "Do they care more about the lives of CPS teachers than the Catholic schoolteachers that have been going to school since August?"


Unfortunately, she didn't answer her own question.

So, I'll answer it for her.

Because the old Chicago political patronage system -- which supplied generations of political workers for elections -- has broken down.

The power vacuum was filled by the CTU and other public worker unions. They're organized. They have money for political contributions and provide muscle in the precincts that can break political careers.

They mayor is clearly afraid of the militant CTU leadership. The aldermen are, too, as are, I suppose, many good and committed public school teachers who'd rather not speak up against their leaders, though they know they're doing wrong by the children.

And what are the students and their parents and taxpayers to do?

They can leave.

Or they can chew on a big bowl of mofongo and think of Sarah Chambers, smiling, in that big floppy hat at poolside, telling public school teachers not to go to school.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is jskass@chicagotribune.com, and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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