Fact-check: How misleading is Stacy Davis Gates’ ‘Dear Union Sibling’ letter?

Fact-check: How misleading is Stacy Davis Gates’ ‘Dear Union Sibling’ letter?

After Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates admitted to sending her son to a private school while trying to kill school choice for others, she defended her decision to her union’s members. To be kind, it was misleading. Here’s a fact check of it.

After it was revealed Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates sent her son to a private high school despite previously calling such schools racist and fascist, she issued a letter to her union’s members titled “Dear Union Sibling.”

In it, she made several inaccurate and misleading claims about school choice. Here is a rundown of what she got wrong.

Claim No. 1: Chicago Public Schools are “struggling to recover from waves of school closings.”

Reality: Following a strike by CTU in 2012, 50 virtually empty CPS schools were closed, in part because of the costly contract coming out of that strike. But closure of those schools became a rallying cry for the militant branch of CTU called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. Many of the closed schools would not be empty if CTU leadership had not forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to block public charter schools from using those campuses. CTU has gone as far as creating moratoriums on charter school expansions in their contract, effectively removing potential opportunities for parents to choose which schools to send their kids to.

In 2020 and 2021, CTU campaigned to keep the public schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling efforts to reopen schools “racist,” “sexist” and “misogynist.” During that time, chronic absenteeism skyrocketed in the district. At the same time, the University of Chicago Crime Lab reported a 50% increase in shooting victimizations of school-aged youth 17 years and younger.

Claim No. 2: CPS is suffering from “disinvestment under previous mayors.”

Reality: False. From the 2014-15 school year to the 2023-24 school year, funding for CPS has increased from $4.03 billion to $7.65 billion. Since Invest in Kids came into effect in 2018-19, state and local funding for Chicago’s public schools has increased $1.93 billion despite enrollment dropping by nearly 40,000 students in that period.

Claim No. 3: The lack of extracurricular activities, sports programs and other services serving underprivileged areas is a “living and breathing example” of inequality. Chicago’s marginalized communities have experienced “decades of systemic underinvestment” and Black families “aren’t blessed with quality options blocks away.”

Reality: It is true underprivileged areas often lack important services and opportunities. But calling this issue “decades of systemic underinvestment” ignores the important roles overbearing taxes, corruption and CTU-created school closures have played in harming kids in these communities.

For starters, the lack of reform goes hand-in-hand with high taxes, a factor that drives away investment. Illinois Policy Institute analysis has shown a correlation between corruption levels and poverty: Illinois’ own high corruption rates line up with this trend.

CTU hasn’t helped. It fought to keep kids out of schools for prolonged periods even when data indicated truancy, crime and absentee rates were increasing. It proudly bargains over issues beyond the traditional scope of collective bargaining, such as defunding the police. And in its moratorium on charter schools, it pushes the message that their remedy for uplifting underprivileged communities is to block families from having more schooling options.

It is also true many of these communities lack quality options. But that claim advances the school-choice argument above all. Many students in CPS are failing to meet proficiency in core subjects. Fewer low-income students in CPS can read at grade level compared to their higher-income counterparts. The low-income students in third- through eighth-grade reading at grade level is 28 percentage points lower than higher-income students. For math, the difference is 27 percentage points.

The Invest in Kids Act helps over 9,600 low-income students secure scholarships to attend schools with better-fitting opportunities and programs – schools that serve as alternatives to neighborhood public schools. Thousands more low-income students await their turn to exercise the same choice. Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization, reported in 2021 that nearly half of its scholarships statewide were granted to minority students, while over half of its scholarships in Cook County were given to minorities.

Yet, Davis Gates labels proponents of school choice as fascists while her union leverages its war chest to lobby against the Invest in Kids Act. This is while she sends her own son to a private Catholic school in an apparent recognition that parents like her should be afforded the choice to send their kids to better schools. But if the program were to end, thousands of low-income families CTU claims to fight on behalf of would be scrambling to keep their kids enrolled in private schools that better fit their individual needs.

Claim No. 4: Education policy “has been left to millionaires, billionaires and those living outside our neighborhoods, city and state.”

Reality: Most of the education policy is determined at the state level, by the Illinois General Assembly through the Illinois State Board of Education. Local school boards also play a pivotal role in local control over school districts.

CTU has played a significant role in terms of lobbying the government, bankrolling political candidates, and influencing state-level and citywide education policy.

Claim No. 5: Their schools are “stranded in food and health care deserts.”

Reality: CPS participates in numerous state- and federally-funded school nutrition programs. They offer free “nutritionally balanced breakfast, lunch and snacks to all students.” CPS partners with 33 school-based health centers across the city.

Davis Gates’ point is further undercut by the fact that in the charter schools she and CTU opposes, over 98% of students are minority and 86% receive free or reduced-cost school lunches.

Claim No. 6: Proponents of school choice “skip over the realities of racism and discrimination in educational institutions and propose a ‘choice’ agenda that ignores this context.” They “take action to shortchange students, engage in fraudulent practices and provide substandard services to Black and Brown families.”

Reality: Invest in Kids, Illinois’ only school choice program, provides donor-funded scholarships to over 9,600 low-income students to attend private schools of their choosing. For those families, it affords them more options in terms of their children’s education. In some cases, it serves as an opportunity for low-income students to escape issues such as bullying, overcrowding and poor academics at their public schools. For example, CPS parent Rena Garrett saw a significant turnaround in her son’s behavior when her son received a scholarship to attend a private school.

Garrett is hardly alone in supporting and witnessing the benefits of school choice. Polling shows it enjoys overwhelming political support among Black and Hispanic voters, with such approval widening. Others have come forward with their stories, including principal Roni Facen and student George Kokuro.

CTU has shown its hand in opposing charter school development, including imposing a cap on the number of charter schools. This is in spite of two facts: empirical evidence from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found them to be viable alternatives to public schools even though their student body was more “challenging,” and that 97.8% of charter school enrollees in Chicago are Black or Latino.

What about the Chicago public schools Davis Gates let her son escape but forces underprivileged students to attend? Just 20% of third- through eighth-grade students can read at grade level and 15% can perform math proficiently. One-third of school buildings were less than half-full and more than half of schools were labeled “underutilized” in the 2022-2023 school year. Enrollment has dropped by more than 39,000 students during the past five school years. Chronic absenteeism in Chicago Public Schools is on the rise with nearly 45% of students chronically absent in 2022.

CPS is operating on larger and larger budgets each year, despite schooling fewer and fewer students and manifesting worsening proficiency. But somehow, CPS is celebrating “record-high” graduation rates and high teacher approval marks.

Claim No. 7: “CTU educators, parents and students from the harmed communities are the only voices” that advocate for marginalized communities “while the right-wing, ‘school-choice’ movement goes silent.”

Reality: False. Data from Empower Illinois has shown 67% of its 7,018 scholarships in 2022 were granted to families making 185% or less of the federal poverty level. 18.8% of its scholarships were to Black students and 34% were to Hispanic students. Waiting in line were 31,948 additional students. The average household income of a scholarship recipient was $45,046, over $25,000 below the state median.

CTU, however, has chosen repeatedly to prioritize politics over student well-being. Its opposition to any alternatives to failing public schools have forced underserved families to stay in that system or homeschool their kids. Its strike in 2022 cost students five of their first seven days of class in the new semester and gave parents merely eight hours of notice. In 2019, its strike kept students out of class for 11 days. Students also lost a day of learning in 2016 as well as seven days in 2012.

Worse, its scope of bargaining extended beyond wages and benefits. Instead, it used its negotiating power to make political demands, including fighting to defund the police and enact rent abatement. Yet, its federal disclosures filed with the Department of Labor show only a small portion of its funds are allocated toward “representational activities.”

Claim No. 8: School choice involves “siphoning public school resources off to private institutions through voucher programs.”

Reality: False. Since Invest in Kids became effective in the 2018-19 school year, CPS has received approximately $1.93 billion more in additional state and local funding. Spending per pupil in the district has shot up even more drastically as tens of thousands of fewer students have enrolled in the district since 2018-19.

In fact, no money is diverted from the public education budget, because the scholarships are funded by individuals incentivized to donate to scholarship-granting organizations to receive a tax credit from the government. It has zero impact on how much money CPS receives.

School choice for me, but not for thee

Stacy Davis Gates’ choice to place her son in private school demonstrates the hypocrisy of the union and its leadership. Chicago teachers know the value of private schools, with 39% of them making that choice for their own children – nearly double the rate for teachers nationwide and for regular Chicagoans, one study found. Other parents also want their children to live out their dreams at schools with better sports, activities and academic programs.

Davis Gates can afford to make that choice. Other parents can’t.

What caring person wouldn’t want impoverished parents to have that same option?

The Illinois General Assembly has one more chance to save the Invest in Kids program during its veto session starting Oct. 24. Contact your state lawmaker and ask where they stand on Invest in Kids scholarships for low-income families.

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