CHICAGO — The leader of the nation’s largest labor union, the three million member National Education Association, visited the Chicago area Wednesday.

Nearly 450 kindergarten through eighth grade students have gone back to school and teachers are back to work at Pennoyer Elementary School in Norridge.

Becky Pringle, the National Education Association (NEA) President, stopped by Pennoyer Elementary School on Wednesday to celebrate the school finally won a funding referendum after six failed tries.

Pringle says she’ll take Pennoyer school’s example of persistence back to Washington as she works to shape the nation’s education policy.

The NEA is a power player in shaping federal education policy and Pringle sees it as her mission to transform the union into a vehicle for social justice.

“When I became NEA president, what I articulated as a strategic vision was, we would reclaim public education as a common good, as the foundation of our democracy, but we couldn’t stop there” Pringle said. “We couldn’t stop there. We had to transform it into something it was never designed to be a racially and socially just system that prepares every student everywhere to succeed.”

She says the creeping influence of politics in classrooms is a threat to education. Around the country, right-wing politicians have led efforts to ban books, language, and topics dealing with race and LGBTQ+ issues.

“All of the politicians and pundits who are trying to politicize our school, demonize teachers, which is new, who are not focused on what our kids need or what our parents say they want for their kids,” she said.

Pringle, the highest ranking black labor leader in the country, is in charge of the largest union in the United States and says these tensions in education come at a moment where workers across many industries are feeling disrespected – leading to strikes or strike threats from UPS, to Starbucks, and from auto workers to Hollywood writers and actors.

Low pay, high demands, and disrespect are driving what many see as a crisis in education: teacher shortages across the country.

This summer, a Brown University survey estimated that there are at least 36,000 teacher vacancies in the United States – and at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers.

Pringle says solutions include increasing teacher pay and ensuring proper school staffing — including mental health professionals.