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What the Chicago school closures mean for Democrats

A sign is displayed at the entrance of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools on Jan. 5, 2022. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Chicago Public Schools remained closed for a third day in a row Friday, after the Chicago Teachers Union told teachers not to show up amid disagreements about how to handle the coronavirus surge.

And as the standoff continued, the punditry went to the predictable places it must always go in such circumstances: Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah! Ronald Reagan vs. the air traffic controllers union! Why doesn’t President Biden take a page out of those history books and stand up to a key constituency?

These comparisons, as they often do, skip over all kinds of nuance and key differences — the biggest one being that the air traffic controllers were federal employees, and their strike was plainly illegal. Reagan had significantly more leverage than Biden does to get Chicago teachers back in classrooms.

But that doesn’t mean the administration is relegated to bystander status. And indeed, the situation is one of the biggest tests to date of the Democratic Party’s increasing efforts to assure they aren’t viewed as the party of lockdowns and school closures — particularly after they thought they had moved past the latter.

It also comes as the administration and the party have very recent evidence of how damaging such perceptions can be at the ballot box; schools and extended school closures were a significant issue in the Virginia governor’s race, which the GOP won.

You don’t have to look too far in the rearview to see both how difficult the situation could remain and how much the administration has struggled to deal with issues involving school reopenings and teachers unions.

Biden took office nearly a year ago having promised in his first 100 days to reopen schools, which had in many cases been closed for nearly a year. At the time, the sticking point was whether schools would reopen before all teachers were vaccinated, which the unions didn’t want to do. The administration offered decidedly mixed and at-times-testy messages.

After the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, signaled that schools could reopen without all teachers being vaccinated, the White House backed off. It claimed that Walensky had been speaking “in her personal capacity,” even as she said these things at an official White House briefing.

Shortly thereafter, the White House demurred on whether it might have to get tough on the teachers unions if push came to shove. “I think that’s a little bit unfair how you pose that question,” press secretary Jen Psaki said — even as the suggestion had been made by a prominent Democrat, Mike Bloomberg. She instead offered noncommittal language stating that Biden wanted to reopen schools, but to do so safely.

When a reporter suggested this translated to “yes, with an asterisk,” Psaki shot back: “If you are the spokesperson for the White House, you could certainly say that, but you are not.”

As we noted at the time, it was hardly far-fetched to think push might indeed come to shove. Merely by edging back from Walensky’s comments, the White House was signaling that it wanted to avoid alienating the unions if at all possible. And while that was almost certainly smart politics, Biden had run his campaign with vows that he wouldn’t muzzle health officials like Donald Trump had, and that they would guide administration policy.

Today, the White House is again declining to weigh in too forcefully, because it probably doesn’t have to — at least yet. White House coronavirus adviser Jeffrey Zients began an event Wednesday saying, “The president couldn’t be clearer: Schools in this country should remain open.” Psaki, too, has reinforced that this is Biden’s position, including tying it directly to the situation in Chicago, and has pointed out that 96 percent of schools are indeed open. The message seems to be: We’ve made good on this, even if there are outliers.

The danger for the White House in Chicago isn’t so much what’s happening right now — though conservative media are certainly pushing hard to saddle the administration with it — but what might lie ahead. What if there’s a truly extended standoff there? What if teachers unions in other areas of the country begin taking a similar approach, especially if and when this unpredictable pandemic surges again — or stays surged? (Several other school districts have recently responded to the omicron variant surge by temporarily shuttering.)

There is certainly value in getting this resolved sooner than later. For now, the White House seems content to let Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who has clashed repeatedly with the same union in often-nasty terms, lead the charge. Lightfoot on Friday afternoon expressed some hope that a deal could be reached “in the next day or so,” but again blamed the union for the closures.

Lightfoot is hardly alone in finding herself in such clashes. So, too, have California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) and plenty of others. Democrats as a whole have increasingly tried hard to avoid looking like covid mitigators.

Arguably on no issue is the path forward on the coronavirus as politically dicey as when it comes to Democrats’ relationships with their longtime allies in the teachers unions. And arguably on no issue do they need to get this right as much as education. Not only did school closures appear to matter in Virginia, but polling has shown Republicans severely diminishing and sometimes erasing Democrats’ historical advantage on issues of education. CNN’s Harry Enten makes a compelling case that school closures have been a big part of that.

It’s quite possible to oversell the long-term salience of what’s happening in Chicago, particularly if it gets resolved after only a few days. But the lessons of the pandemic, the Democrats’ history with unions, and the 2021 election certainly indicate that there’s a premium on getting this one right and making sure school closures are as far from voters’ minds over the next 10 months as possible.