Vallas: Chicago Teachers Union war on public school choice hurts poor, minority students

Vallas: Chicago Teachers Union war on public school choice hurts poor, minority students

Let’s be clear on who will be impacted by this unrelenting attack on school choice: poor Black and Latino students.

Fresh off its success in leading the charge to eliminate the state’s “Invest in Kids” private school scholarship program, the Chicago Teachers Union is determined to wipe out public school choice, too.

Let’s be clear: most of the students impacted will be low-income Black and Latino children.

The Chicago Public Schools Board just passed a resolution that specifies it is their intent to “transition away from privatization and admissions/enrollment policies,” in other words, charter schools and magnet schools, the fact remains the school district is well on its way to accomplishing this. So much for inviting community input on this issue. The district is killing public school choice thanks to pressure from the CTU.

The CTU has systematically been working to destroy public school choice since the current Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators took over leadership in 2010. Bowing to CTU-led pressure, the state abolished the independent Illinois State Charter School Commission in 2020. This shift left teachers-union dominated local school districts to determine the fate of existing and future charters.

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.

Not only did the union pressure the district to bar charters from leasing the 50 public school buildings closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but of the $3.64 billion budgeted for capital improvements from 2017-2021, charters made up a paltry $22 million, or 0.6%. This is despite the charters enrolling over 54,000 of Chicago’s public school children, constituting 10% of all elementary school students and 25% of all high school students.

The CTU pressured the district to cap not only the number of charter schools but also charter school enrollment, even those that are high performing. The CTU even opposes opening alternative charter high schools to help older students who dropped out or have been in the criminal justice system. This is egregious, considering about 45,000 teens and young adults are not in school and are unemployed.

Now the CTU is seeking to degrade and ultimately destroy public charter schools through more frequent renewals. Previously, the school district typically renewed charter school programs for standard five-, seven- or even 10-year terms. In September, CPS granted shorter two- or three-year contracts to 22 charter schools. Last year, none of the 28 charter schools up for renewal received a five-year extension.

Requiring renewal every 2-3 years is the CTU’s strategy to destabilize charter schools in Chicago, fostering anxiety among faculty and charter school families. This undermines the schools’ efforts to recruit and retain staff and students. More frequent renewals divert staff time, energy and resources from educating children and into the renewal process. It is harder to get capital and plan for improvements when doubt about a school’s future is created.

Now, the assault on selective enrollment magnet schools begins. Never mind that selective enrollment high schools constitute a meager 11 of the district’s 151 public high schools. Attacking them is part of the CTU’s effort to perpetuate a “Tale of Two Cities” myth, that there is a conspiracy to provide certain selective enrollment schools that receive funding priority over schools on the South Side and West Side. They, of course, do not.

Let’s be clear on who will be impacted by this unrelenting attack on school choice: poor Black and Latino students. During the past two decades, it’s primarily the Black middle class that has been leaving CPS. Today, Black enrollment in CPS is less than half of what it was in 1999-2000, a staggering decline from 227,000 to approximately 113,000, according to district data. During this time, 266,188 Blacks left the city, overwhelmingly middle-income families with school-age children.

For those families remaining, despite being deliberately underfunded and receiving little facility support from the district, public charter schools have increasingly been seen as an alternative to the failing and often unsafe neighborhood schools. The fact is 96% of the over 54,000 children attending public charter schools are Black and Latino, and 86% are from low-income households. Of the over 12,000 students attending magnet schools, over 70% are Black and Latino, and over 50% come from low-income families.

Claims that neighborhood schools are of poor quality are complicated by the CTU’s refusal to allow any actions or changes that might make the schools better if it impacts any of its members, their working conditions or job security. This obstruction stifles the adoption of more effective, proven school models that require autonomy and flexibility over budgets, staffing models and school calendars.

While it may not be by intent, segregation and unequal educations are certainly the result. They fester in the absence of school choice. They fester when communities, particularly in poor, large urban school districts, are unable to successfully demand fundamental changes in their often-failing local schools and are denied alternatives to those failing schools.

The inequality and academic impoverishment flourish because unions spend fortunes to preserve their destructive monopoly on America’s public education institutions. These monopolies – like all monopolies unfettered by competition – too often doom children to “educational redlining.” In other words, poor families are subjected to whatever quality the public school in their ZIP code provides. When the quality is bad, they are stuck with subpar neighborhood schools.

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