Vallas: Chicago Teachers Union out to destroy superior performance of charter schools

Vallas: Chicago Teachers Union out to destroy superior performance of charter schools

Charter schools give low-income and minority students a better shot at success. So why is the Chicago Teachers Union trying to hurt charter schools’ better academic performance at lower cost?

Illinois public leaders and teachers union bosses profess to support equity in education funding, but new research shows a 36% gap in the funding Illinois hands Chicago’s charter schools compared to the city’s traditional public schools.

Contrary to the propaganda of the Chicago Teachers Union and their national allies, charter schools are public schools. They are free and open to all students. A charter school is a public school that operates as a school of choice. Yet in Chicago, charter schools receive over $8,600 less in funding per pupil than their typical public-school counterparts, despite 88% of the students they serve being in poverty, compared to 78% of the total public-school population.

Why do teachers unions despise charters? Because they are independent public schools free of certain state and collective bargaining mandates that would limit their ability to design and operate a school that prioritizes children. They often employ a longer school day and year, more rigorous standards and procedures for holding teachers and staff accountable. Charter schools offer families a public-school alternative to their often underperforming and unsafe neighborhood public school.

The national teachers unions’ primary agenda is perpetually increasing funding, seeking less accountability and quashing competition. Their continued opposition to vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, education saving accounts and other school choice programs that enable America’s poorest families to seek alternatives to failing public schools is proof of this agenda. However, the unions direct their greatest hostility at public charter schools. Their intent is to destroy the public charter school movement. Union leaders cap the number of charter schools and the number of seats being offered to kids and families. They impose restrictive mandates that undermine charter schools’ flexibility to provide a better-quality education. And the hostility toward charters continues on through to how they get funded.

A University of Arkansas School of Education study looking at the differences between how much public money goes to public charter and traditional public schools clearly documented the significant inequities in funding. In Chicago, the average revenue for public charter schools was $15,453 per student during the 2019-20 school year, compared to $24,086 per student in regular public schools – a 36% funding differential. This funding disparity constitutes an injustice, especially because charter schools are public schools of choice for a disproportionate number of minority children.

Teachers unions and their allies have been unrelenting in their campaign to contain and roll back the public charter school movement. Nowhere have they been more successful than in Illinois, where the state has been resistant to new charters and where the Chicago Public Schools caved to CTU’s demand charters be capped and any further student enrollment be frozen. Chicago’s existing charter schools are barred from using any public school buildings closed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

The CTU is so determined to block charters that the district has failed to even take advantage of state law which authorizes the creation of alternative schools for students who have dropped out, been kicked out for behavior reasons, have returned from incarceration or are simply too old to return to the traditional neighborhood high school. The recent UIC Great Cities Institute report shows in 2021 over 92,000 Chicagoans ages 16-19 were jobless and 36,758 ages 20-24 were both out of school and jobless. That problem may be fueling Chicago’s crime epidemic.

Currently 114 public charter schools operate in Chicago, educating more than 54,000. That’s 1 in 4 high school students and 1 in 10 elementary students, 98% of whom are students of color and 86% who receive free or reduced lunch. The attack on charter schools by the teacher unions only serves to punish the children who are enrolled in those schools.

Research shows charters outperform public school peers

The most recent study shows charters pulling farther away from their traditional public school competition in student performance. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes released its third report (2009, 2013, 2023) tracking charter school outcomes over 15 years covering over 2 million charter students in 29 states. CREDO’s conclusions are unequivocal: Most charter schools “produce superior student gains despite enrolling a more challenging student population.” Moreover, “Black and Hispanic students in charter schools advance more than their [traditional public school] peers by large margins in both math and reading.”

Equally compelling is research by the preeminent economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell with the release of his 30th book entitled “Charter Schools and Their Enemies.” Sowell focused on more than 100 New York City schools where both charter and traditional public-school students shared the same building. Just 14% of those public-school classes had a majority of students proficient in English; for math, the number was 10%. In the charter schools, children fared significantly better, with 65% of classes having a majority of students proficient in English and 68% having a majority proficient in math.

Equally impressive was the considerable improvement in student performance in New Orleans, post-Katrina, when a new district was built in which all non-elect enrollment neighborhood schools were public charters. From pre-Katrina, 2004, through 2019: graduation rates improved from 54% to 78%; college enrollment among graduates improved 37% to 61%; and TOPS merit scholarship student recipients grew from 25% to 47%.

The public-school choice debate is an important one as we tackle the challenges of transforming historically underserved communities. With nearly twice the percentage of Black children attending charter public schools as traditional public schools nationwide, critics have argued charter public schools are re-segregating. They conveniently ignore the geographic location of these schools and that Black children who attend charters come from or would be going to highly segregated schools. Charter schools give Black and other poor families school choices for the first time, and they are responding.

A role for public charter schools in community empowerment

Public schools face a centralized command and control organizational structure, which has led to only 56% of school funding being directly provided to the local schools, along with restrictive collective bargaining agreements that work against the concept of community schools because they allow no real local school autonomy. Local school empowerment means creating community schools that are truly autonomous, where a majority of school funding follows the children, schools are granted broad autonomy over programs, staffing, school calendar and expenditure priorities. Local School Councils are given autonomy to select better school models.

Nationally, a growing number of urban school districts have empowered their local communities to demand their failing schools be reconstituted using proven, successful school models with no displacement of students. Called “renaissance” or “innovation” schools, these are autonomous schools, often but not always charters, that have been partially liberated from district funding intercepts and many state and collective bargaining restrictions that undermine effective use of school time and resources.

Specifically, these schools have autonomy over most or all of the management of their day-to-day operations. This includes hiring and firing staff, defining the learning model and curriculum, controlling the budget, setting the school calendar and schedule, and helping teachers develop their skills. Like any public school, they must abide by state and federal laws regarding equal rights, discrimination, health and safety, as well as meet district performance goals. These can be charter schools or portfolio schools, which are district schools granted charter-like autonomy.

These schools remain neighborhood schools whose existing students will have the benefit of the better school model. There is no displacement. The schools only accept students from outside if there are surplus seats, which further expands school choice. The key and the commonality to the model is these schools have the autonomy to make most decisions at the school and classroom level, rather than being dictated to by the central office or school board. They remain part of the district, in a district building. As a result, when these schools improve, they lift the district scores as well.

The current “gold standard” for these schools is the Indianapolis Public Schools’ “Innovation Schools.” The school district central office has given up its traditional role in setting policy at the school level. The district office partners with the portfolio of independent charter schools, performs the critical function of holding those autonomous charter schools accountable for improved academic performance and sound financial management of district funds. It can, and has, declined to renew operating agreements with schools that fail to meet their performance metrics.

It’s time to liberate schools from the centralized command and control organizational structure that has remained in effect since the 1800’s and restrictive union covenants that go beyond compensation and benefits and control all things that impact the delivery of education services: length of the school day and year, staffing, teacher assignments, promotions, evaluations, teacher accountability and the use of outside professionals. The lack of local autonomy impedes innovation. The community through its elected Local School Councils and local leaders should be able to select, with the assistance of the district, the school model that will best meet the needs of the schools’ children.

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