The Chicago Teachers Union has suspended its strike and agreed to return to in-person teaching on Wednesday.

Chicago Teachers Union Car Picket to Demand End to Educator Virtual Classroom Lockouts. January 15, 2021. (photo: Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA))

During Monday’s press briefing at the White House, Spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked about the Chicago Teachers Union strike, then looking likely to stretch into a second week.

Would the White House throw its weight behind efforts to get Chicago public school students back in the classroom? It was certainly a question on the minds of many nervous parents in Chicago.

“The Biden Administration,” Psaki assured reporters, “is in regular touch with the governor and the mayor behind the scenes. We are on the side of schools being open. We will continue to convey that clearly.”

Whatever passed behind the scenes in Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union abruptly announced today that after a scant week on strike, teachers will return to the classroom on Wednesday.

The strike, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s response to it, has already brought the Chicago Public School system to its knees and Chicago parents to their breaking point.

When the Chicago Teachers Union announced Chicago teachers would teach exclusively online rather than return to in-person learning last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot locked teachers out of the CPS online learning platform.

Calling it an “illegal strike”, Mayor Lightfoot took a hard line with the CTU and demanded teachers return to in-person instruction at once.

Now that the strike is over it is unclear what, if anything, this action managed to accomplish.

“Some will ask who won and who lost,” Lightfoot said Tuesday, a tacit if tactful admission of victory. “No one wins when our students are out of the place where they can learn the best and where they’re safest.”

“The teachers in our system love their students,” Lightfoot graciously allowed. “That’s not what this was about. We love our teachers, we continue to support our teachers.”

The stalemate between the CPS and the CTU may have been ultimately preserved, however, with Chicago students still likely to bear the brunt of the ongoing conflict.

If 30% of Chicago’s teachers don’t show up for work, and substitutes can’t get that number under 25%, the Chicago Public School system has agreed to give the CTU a five day in-person school closure. But the CPS has not agreed to allow teachers to make up these potentially lost days at the end of the school year, meaning they won’t be paid for missing days.

Pay is what Chicago teachers who participated in the strike, some 84%, will not be getting for the past four days, either. Many are disgruntled over what they see as very little to show for it.

The Chicago Teachers Union may have gotten even less than it thinks out of this latest labor dispute, its third in 27 months. They may have gone a bit too far out on the politicized limb this time.

The glaring fact that most, if not all, other public school districts in the country had already returned to some form of in-person learning probably didn’t help the CTU’s case much.

Nor did the overwhelming sentiment of Chicago parents, in a virtual learning panic over whether or not their children will ever return to school. More than anything, the CTU has given the impression of COVID-19 being a tool in the continuation of their ongoing power struggles with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The charge of becoming overly politicized, rather than an organization that advocates for teachers, is bolstered by the many dustups the CTU has had with Lightfoot since she defeated their preferred candidate in the election.

Worse, the actions of the CTU reflects on the Teachers Union as a whole. There have already been plenty of accusations of politicizing the pandemic, and are likely to be more as the fallout from two years of interrupted education become fully realized.

“Before Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos went on tv and politicized it, teachers were ready to get back in the classroom,” admitted Teacher’s Union president Randi Weingarten in an interview not long ago, defending the 2020 decision to shut down public schools for such an extended period in the first place.

The stunning admission made little impression at the time, but it does present some interesting questions.

What was the motivation for the abrupt shift some school districts made to virtual learning? Why didn’t some hold-outs switch back when so many other school districts successfully did?

Was it concern over covid? Or, as Weingarten said, was it politics?

Was it both?

For a thought experiment, consider the likely outcome had then-President Trump tried a cannier tack on television that day way back in 2020, when strategies for dealing with COVID-19 were still in their formative stage.

Rather than “politicize” the albeit important issue of keeping kids in school, what if Trump and DeVos had delivered the following stump speech instead:

“Whatever happens, we need to keep kids away from public schools! No way should children be in school under any circumstances. It is way, way too dangerous for kids to be in school; no matter whatpublic schools must remain closed at all costs.”

Would Weingarten have gone on the news circuit to agree with Donald Trump? Or would the teachers union have instigated a veritable stampede of educators back into the classroom?

In an effort to refute Trump, would we have seen a plethora of experts shout from the mountaintops of all the major media networks- as we are suddenly seeing now- that COVID-19 is overwhelmingly minor in children?

If the tinny voices sounding infrequently and shrill throughout the pandemic- that public schools had to find a way to remain open if private schools and those in Europe and elsewhere managed to stay open; that teachers were essential workers; that school closures hurt impoverished, at-risk and minority kids disproportionally; that remote learning was an unmitigated disaster; that the risk of COVID-19 to children was and remains very low; that the availability of vaccines, at the very least, should put school closures firmly in the rear-view mirror; that these closures cause all kinds of long-term problems for kids, schools, teachers, parents, and society including behavioral, social and developmental issues, increased suicide risk and increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse among teens and pre-teens- had come from the “right” side of the political spectrum, versus the “wrong” one, would public schools in general, and Chicago schools in particular, be in the mess they are in currently?

Inadvertently, the Chicago Teachers Union has exposed the organization to new scrutiny. More and more parents are now clamoring for school choice.

Every student enrolled in the Chicago Public School system gets about $27,000 per year from Uncle Sam. Giving that education credit directly to parents, so that they can use it to pay for the accredited school of their choice, would break the teachers unions, probably forever.

The Chicago Public School system would have to compete with private and parochial schools for tax dollars- or watch their students withdrawn and enrolled in schools that can offer them, and their parents, more return on their educational investment.

School choice is becoming harder and harder for the Democratic Party to stand strongly against. At the start of 2022, school choice had a great deal more widespread support- including from Democrats- than it has had at any point over the last fifty years.

After the actions of the CTU these last weeks, support for school choice is going to grow faster than ever.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)