The Library Lockout at Our Elementary School

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When the librarian was let go, parents volunteered to help. But that’s a union job only, we were told.

PHOTO: ISTOCK

My 6-year-old daughter, Scarlett, is a first-grader at A.N. Pritzker Elementary, one of 600 schools in the Chicago Public Schools system. Scarlett enjoys reading, but she has recently faced a serious problem getting the books she wants. The Chicago Teachers Union is preventing her and her classmates from using the school library.

Due to a combination of budget cuts and enrollment numbers that were lower than expected, Pritzker’s librarian was laid off shortly after this school year began. Without a librarian, Pritzker students aren’t allowed to use the library. Dozens of parents have offered to volunteer in the library to keep it open. There was so much interest that the parent-teacher organization created a rotating schedule of regular volunteers to help out.

But before parents could begin volunteering, a teachers union member filed a formal complaint with the school system, objecting to the parents’ plan. Several weeks later, a union representative appeared at a local school council meeting and informed parents that the union would not stand for parental volunteers in the library. Although the parents intended to do nothing more than help students check books in and out, the union claimed that the parents would be impermissibly filling a role reserved for teachers. The volunteer project was shut down following the meeting and the library is currently being used for dance classes.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the Chicago Teachers Union is an affiliate. In response to President-elect Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department, Ms. Weingarten said in November that “we have an obligation to all children in America.” One part of getting children the education they need, she added, is ensuring that parents have a voice in their children’s education.

The Chicago union’s actions do not match Ms. Weingarten’s rhetoric. How does forcing the closure of an elementary school library square with the union’s stated mission of fighting for children? How does opposing parents who want to volunteer their time so that children can check out books constitute giving parents the voice they need?

On its website, the Chicago union expresses concern at the “extremely limited in-school and life experiences” available to many poor and minority students. The union says it is focused on closing the “opportunity gap.” But by shuttering the Pritzker library the union is limiting experiences and creating an opportunity gap for the 47% of Pritzker students who come from low-income families, as well as the school’s nonwhite pupils—74% of the student body.

If history is any guide, the union will blame budget cuts for the library’s closure. City Hall deserves its share of criticism for not resolving the public school budget crisis, but the union is hardly blameless. During recent contract negotiations the union demanded that the Chicago Public Schools both provide pay increases and continue covering pension contributions that the city wanted teachers to begin paying for themselves. To avoid a strike, the city agreed to both demands. This only reduces the pool of money available to pay additional instructor salaries and maintain head count.

My daughter Scarlett misses her library books. So do her classmates. If the union has the students’ best interests at heart, it will withdraw its opposition to parents volunteering in the school library.

Mr. Hendershot is a lawyer in Chicago.

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