By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD – Chicago public-school teachers are on strike, rallying for better pay, benefits and working conditions.
That much we know.
But what about the parents sick of a failing school system? Who will address their needs? When can they strike and demand a better education for their children?
“Teachers get to walk out and demand better conditions, better pay and better benefits. But parents cannot walk out and say, ‘We want more and better things for the money we are giving,’” said Joy Pullmann, an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative free-market think tank.
True school choice is still mostly an unattainable desire for parents without the means to send their children to expensive private or parochial schools.
“It’s not really fair for the teachers’ union to be able to hold almost all the kids in the city hostage to its whims, especially when research shows what common sense would dictate, which is that more instruction time for kids is essential to their lifelong success.”
This week’s historic Chicago teachers’ strike has stirred up talk around the country about the aforementioned school choice, leaving many to wonder if charter schools should play a larger role in public education.
Chicago’s charter school teachers aren’t members of the Chicago Teachers Union.
They’ve been on the job at the city’s charter schools this week as thousands of unionized teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system stood on picket lines.
The work stoppage, announced late Sunday, left thousands of inner-city parents in a lurch, scrambling to find care for their school-age children.
The charter-school concept is relatively young in the spectrum of the country’s public school system. Charter schools are supported largely by public money but establish their own teaching guidelines in exchange for guaranteeing certain academic results. They are considered public schools, they do not charge tuition, and students are admitted through a lottery system.
Parents frustrated by low-performing public schools often seek out better-performing charter schools in lieu of private schools that charge tuition.
The Chicago Teachers Union opposes charter schools, whose educators are not unionized. They say the staff is paid less and the schools suck up money that could be used to improve struggling inner-city neighborhood schools.
Sunday night at a news conference announcing the teachers strike, the frustration became evident when CTU president Karen Lewis said, “Schools, real schools, will be closed tomorrow,” apparently a not-so-veiled reference to the city’s charter schools.
Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said it’s clear why CTU is not fond of charter schools – they’re not unionized, they have longer school hours and they pay teachers less.
“That obviously goes against what the union is fighting for,” he said. “The other part, of course, is that they’ve had some pretty good results. It’s a threat to the unions. That’s why they will belittle the charters.”
According to Illinois State Board of Education figures published in January, Illinois has 52 charter schools — not counting numerous campuses operated by some of the schools —most of which are in Chicago. About 50,000 students, or 2.4 percent of public school students statewide, attend charter schools. In Chicago, 11 percent of public school students go to charter schools.
Several charter schools were approved to open in Chicago this school year, but none were to open elsewhere in Illinois, according to ISBE’s report. Illinois has no charter schools south of East St. Louis.
Most of the state’s charter schools have sizable wait lists – a sign that parents like what they see, said Dabrowski, who has researched charter schools and school choice in Illinois.
“There are three kids who want to attend a charter school for every one that gets in. That’s reflective of the kind of choice and the kind of freedom that families in Chicago deserve,” he said. “If they weren’t performing, if they weren’t a good alternative, people wouldn’t show up for the lottery.”
Illinois Sen. Kim Lightford, D-Chicago, supported legislation in 2009 that expanded the number of charter schools in the state. Lawmakers agreed to a moratorium on additional legislation governing charters for three years. That means renewed talk among lawmakers about charter schools probably will begin surfacing again next year.
Lightford said her opinion of charter schools has changed since she joined the General Assembly in 1998.
“I know when I came to the General Assembly in 1998 I was totally opposed to the idea of charter schools and expansion because I understood them to be a form of privatizing of the schools,” she said. “I learned about our education system over the years and saw where some of the charter schools were showing really good results. I didn’t see anything wrong with them, and they are public schools.
“There are some significant differences in the makeup of them, but my bottom line is what’s best for educating our children.”
Charter schools also come with questions about civil rights and access. By allowing parents to flee under-performing schools, lower-income students, often minorities, with fewer resources and support systems are left behind. It can create a frustrating situation for the families and teachers who remain.
According to figures from Chicago Public Schools, 87 percent of students come from low-income homes, and 85 percent are black or Latino.
“This is, I think, a big moral question, a big civil rights question. You’ve got a city with over 80 percent of the students in low-income (situations), and yet they have no choice and no say in where they can go to school,” Dabrowski said.
“To the extent that charters provide choice for families and kids is a big moral win. I think it’s totally wrong for the city (of Chicago) and for (Chicago Public Schools) to have a monopoly on educating children and delivering education. I think charters should be highlighted. They’re part of the solution. They’re not the only solution, but they should see a lot of sunshine in this really stormy moment.”
Pullmann noted that many political observers will be watching the outcome of the Chicago teachers strike, particularly as it is in President Barack Obama’s hometown, and it is a potential liability for his campaign to have a major labor strike going on during an election year.
“The last thing the president wants to do is talk about a strike in his hometown during the election season, because there really is no way that he comes out of it looking good,” she said.
But it also brings attention to the issue of school choice.
“Families should have school choice. It is fundamentally unjust to require kids to attend school by ZIP code and take people’s tax dollars and spend it on organizations that have no requirement for performance in return,” Pullmann said.
“So what school choice does is relieve those injustices. It makes schools compete with each other for academics, culture, studying and learning styles. It basically realigns the incentives of the system so they are in line with the interests of children. Public school interests are not aligned with children’s. They are about how much money they can get, how many staff members they can get and how much tax dollars they can capture – all the wrong ways for any enterprise to operate.”