Vallas: How to empower Chicago communities to save failing schools

Vallas: How to empower Chicago communities to save failing schools

Innovation can help Chicago Public Schools improve academic proficiency, but it requires breaking up the centralized power built by the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools. Local control can improve student outcomes.

It’s time to liberate Chicago Public Schools from the grip of the Chicago Teachers Union and their centralized, top-down command and control organizational structure  a structure that spends almost $30,000 per student, yet only 54% of the money finds its way into the local schools.

Decentralizing the Chicago Public Schools will allow local schools to dictate how best to spend their finances. It would allow for personalized ways of educating students. It would allow elected local school councils and local school principals to have real input on how best to serve their neighborhood – meaning even changing their school model to a more flexible one providing autonomy over budgets, staffing and school calendars.

This is what residents seem to want. During the past two decades, over 227,000 Black families have left CPS for non-traditional public schools. Of the children remaining, 54,000 have fled to public charter schools in Chicago, where over 97% of the population is Black and Latino, and 86% are from low-income households.

For poor Black and Latino families who don’t have the economic mobility to afford private education and just lost the ability to obtain tax-credit powered scholarships, public charter schools are the only alternative to their often failing and unsafe neighborhood schools. Consider the district’s abysmal academic performance. Among Chicago Public Schools 11th-graders who are Black, only 10.7% meet or exceed standards in reading, and 7.7% in math. Among low-income students, only 14.4% of 11th-graders are proficient in reading, and 12.2% in math.

So what could replace the current public school model? Here are some ideas to consider:

Look at national models for ensuring autonomy

Nationally, a growing number of urban school districts have empowered their local communities to demand the reconstitution of failing schools using proven, successful school models without displacing students.

They’ve created “renaissance” or “innovation” schools liberated from district funding constraints and state and collective bargaining restrictions that hinder school effectiveness. They are often, but not always, charter schools.

These schools have autonomy over most or all aspects of their day-to-day operations, including staff hiring and firing, defining the learning model and curriculum, budget control, setting the school calendar and schedule, and teacher development.

They must still adhere to state and federal laws regarding equal rights, discrimination, health and safety, and meet district performance goals.

These schools remain neighborhood schools with existing students benefiting from improved school models. There is no displacement, and schools only admit students from outside if there are surplus seats, expanding school choice further. 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, housed in district buildings.

Determine school building use, including consolidating schools

Local empowerment can also extend to transferring or sharing nearly vacant buildings with charter schools. Two-thirds of charter schools in Illinois already rent their buildings from non-school district entities. In Chicago, one-third of school buildings are less than half full, many would welcome the opportunity to lease nearly vacant or jointly occupied school buildings. The community can also take advantage of state laws authorizing and financing the opening of alternative schools and adult high schools for students who have dropped out or are too old to return.

Through elected local school councils, the community should be able to invite other public schools and quality magnet programs to share their buildings and to work with other communities to consolidate schools that are under-enrolled. Consider the success of the high schools that added international baccalaureate magnet programs or the Englewood STEM High School in which CPS closed four small high schools in that South Side neighborhood, consolidating students into the new $85 million, well-resourced high school.

The Chicago Teachers Union has repeatedly restricted access to charter schools and shored up the centralized model, prioritizing politics and teachers over students and families. This would mean renegotiating provisions in their next contract.

A new way forward

It’s time to liberate schools from the centralized command and restrictive union agreements. The community, through its elected local school councils and local leaders, should have the funding and the power to select the school model and programs that best meet the needs of the children in their schools.

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