Ep. 40: What happened after unions locked students out of schools?

Ep. 40: What happened after unions locked students out of schools?

New numbers on public school enrollment show the more school districts kept students from the classroom and in-person learning, the more those schools saw enrollment decline. Amy Korte joins the Policy Shop to walk through what the numbers show about Illinois and talk about what’s next for public policy battles that affect education. Learn more by subscribing to the Policy Shop newsletter at illin.is/newsletter.

Host: Hilary Gowins, Senior Vice President
Guest: Amy Korte, Executive Vice President

This edition of The Policy Shop comes to you from Executive Vice President Amy Korte.

An estimated 1.27 million students are missing from public schools across the country since the onset of COVID-19. As the research by the American Enterprise Institute shows, schools that locked kids out of their classrooms the longest saw the largest enrollment dips.

And one of the largest influences on a district’s decision to learn remotely: the strength of its teachers union.

As we look to improve our students’ education and safeguard their mental health, we must consider the power of teachers unions, which forced so many Illinois students out of classrooms and activities, to the detriment of their academic progress and well-being. (Unfortunately, Amendment 1 on the ballot this fall would tilt the table even further in that direction … more on that later).

The Dip Illinois is one of just 19 states that experienced a net 3% or greater decline in enrollment during the past two school years.

Chicago Public Schools alone has lost nearly 25,000 students since the start of the pandemic. The two-year decline in enrollment reached 6.5% – well above the 4.4% national average for mostly-remote districts.

Crain’s Chicago Business reported: “Over the past two years, the district saw a 15% increase in transfers to other school districts, a 25% rise in departures for private schools, and an almost 200% jump in students homeschooled by their families – though the number of homeschoolers remains less than 5% of the district’s enrollment.”

The trick Despite messaging from teachers union leaders that suggested their focus was on keeping staff and children safe, it’s clear that what they’ve done is driving families away. And still, union leadership wants to rewrite the rules to further handicap its competition should the COVID-19 state of emergency continue and in any future state of emergency.

This is crystal clear when you look at House Bill 2789.

HB 2789 was essentially the teachers unions’ attempt at revenge against private schools, many of which, unlike a majority of public schools, took innovative steps to keep students in the classroom during the pandemic — with a fraction of the funding their competitors received.

The pushback As the bill gained momentum in April 2021, the Illinois Policy Institute sounded the alarm. And our advocacy partner, Illinois Policy, connected parents and families with a way to do something about it: Tell lawmakers NO.

By May 28, 2021, nearly 17,000 Illinoisans had filed witness slips against HB 2789, sending a message to state lawmakers that they didn’t want the state to push ahead with over-reaching new rules to govern public and private schools.

Because parents were connected with ways to make their voices heard, the bill, which teachers unions had a hand in drafting, ultimately failed. That irked union bosses.

“Unfortunately, due to a very, very well-coordinated misinformation campaign, House Bill 2789 did in fact stall,” Sean Denney, IEA director of government relations, said in a video. “However, I want to assure everyone that we are going to continue pushing that issue. We’re going to continue pushing it during veto session in November and December.”

The need Why is keeping schools open better for our students? As we wrote in a previous edition of The Policy Shop:

“The decline in students’ 2021 test scores as compared to prior years was significantly larger in districts which offered less access to in-person schooling,” economist Emily Oster and her co-authors wrote in a November 2021 paper. And as Oster and her co-authors report, across the country, the overall picture suggests that more vulnerable districts – lower prior test scores, more minority students – were less likely to have access to in-person schooling.”

Here in Illinois, the Illinois State Board of Education’s Illinois Assessment of Readiness for elementary school students and the SAT for high school juniors showed significant drops in performance across academic subjects.

In 2021, for English language arts, 17% fewer students met grade-level standards, and 18% fewer students were at grade level in math than in 2019. The 2021 tests show only 28.2% of third graders met reading standards, and only 21.7% of sixth graders performed at or above grade level in math. Of high school juniors, 29.6% met standards in math and 33.4% were proficient in English language arts. And those are just statewide averages – many individual schools saw even lower scores for their students.

What’s next? The Chicago Teachers Union was one of the loudest voices demanding that classrooms stay shut during the pandemic, and its members just elected Stacy Davis Gates to its leadership. Gates comes from the same radical wing of the union that has controlled CTU for years, meaning the union is unlikely to moderate its politics or its tactics. Strikes have been CTU’s go-to bargaining tool for years. The union even takes credit for triggering multiple teachers union strikes around the nation in the past decade.

Both teachers and parents are tired of the CTU’s ploys. If voters approve Amendment 1 in November, it will cement in the Illinois Constitution the right of teachers unions to walk out on students … not just in Chicago, but across the state.

In April, CPS teachers and parents joined together to file a petition to challenge Amendment 1 because it contradicts federal law governing labor relations and violates the U.S. Constitution.

Although Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow denied the petition brought by the plaintiffs in Sachen v. the Illinois State Board of Elections, Chicago teachers and parents are bringing the legal challenge plan to appeal the decision. They are represented by attorneys at the Liberty Justice Center and Illinois Policy Institute.

Stay tuned – and in the meantime, learn more about Amendment 1 here.

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