Vallas: Neighboring schools show why Chicago Teachers Union is so wrong

Vallas: Neighboring schools show why Chicago Teachers Union is so wrong

Students at a private school and a Chicago public school in the same neighborhood experience very different outcomes in their educations. Which one produces struggling students? The one dominated by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Much about what is wrong with the Chicago Teachers Union’s approach to education can be seen at two schools within blocks on Chicago’s West Side, Manley High School and Chicago Hope Academy.

The Chicago Public Schools institution is chronically under-enrolled and underperforming. The private parochial school has a long wait list and a 100% college acceptance rate.

These differences are a direct result of actions taken by CTU, its handpicked Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Chicago Public Schools board he appointed – all determined to maintain power above all else. Their limits on competition and protection of members costs students and stops low-income families from seeking quality school alternatives.

A tale of two schools

CPS’ Manley High School, an 1,176-capacity school has just 78 students enrolled. Seventy percent are chronically absent, having missed 10% or more days of school with or without an excuse. The school has 32 full-time equivalent staff and a student to “certified staff” ratio of 5-1. Yet only 3% of 11th grade students met state standards in reading on the SAT in 2023 and none in math. Only 35% of the students who remain at the school graduate within four years and only 5% enroll in postsecondary education.

Eight blocks away is Chicago Hope Academy, an independent private high school that serves 290 students. Over 70% of the students are from low-income families and 99% of students receive financial aid. Overall, Hope ranks sixth of 58 among Christian high schools in Illinois, 25th of 166 in diversity among private schools and ranks within the top 20% of all high schools in the state.

What if Hope, with its extraordinary success and its need for more space for the hundreds of applicants who are turned away each year, were allowed to lease the near-empty Manley and offer to enroll any Manley student electing to stay? This would benefit the school district with cost savings and rental income, and benefit hundreds of children, mostly from low-income families, who would have the benefit of a decent education.

The CTU’s agenda to wipe out competition

The CTU president and 39% of CPS teachers can afford to send their children to private schools. Private school for me, but not for thee. Yet, the CTU is still determined to deny support to any form of private school or public-school alternative for low-income families. This even though results show again and again students perform better in those environments than in CPS.

When former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 neighborhood schools that were nearly empty to help pay for an expensive new CTU contract, part of the deal was CPS promised not to turn any of the newly-emptied schools over to charter schools, despite those schools’ willingness to enroll remaining students. It was the CTU, not Emanuel, who was responsible for closing schools.

In 2023, the CTU played a large role in killing the state “Invest in Kids” scholarship program and the nearly 15,000 student scholarships it supported – primarily from minority and low-income households. The loss of Invest in Kids cost 138 Hope Academy students their scholarships.

The CTU and national teachers unions see private schools, particularly parochial schools, as threats, especially given their superior performance. The COVID-19 pandemic showcased this contrast and exacerbated the inability of the traditional public school system to handle crises, or innovate and adapt in real time.

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed students in U.S. Catholic schools didn’t lose significant academic ground during the pandemic and outperformed public school students in all categories. Catholic schools were “near the top in learning outcomes for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, demonstrating the system’s effectiveness in serving underprivileged students.”

Findings from the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools showed similar results – their students defied the national trend of pandemic-related stagnation and decline in academics. Not only did archdiocese students meet academic expectations by staying on track with their learning, but an overwhelming number of them exceeded learning goals set out by the system’s annual i-Ready assessment exam.

The difference: these schools were unburdened by centralized bureaucracy, union interference and collective bargaining agreements that prioritize teachers’ wants over students’ needs. And that’s why the CTU wants to limit them.

The success of school choice is a story of unique, individualized learning experiences, not one of family wealth or selection bias.

School choice is one of the hottest trends nationally as seven states have added new school choice programs and 11 states expanded programs just in 2023. While many state programs target low-income families, at least 10 states now embrace universal or near-universal school choice programs. Every or nearly every student in a state – not just low-income or special needs students – can access a voucher, education savings account or tax-credit scholarship to attend a school of their choice.

Illinois – and its Gov. J.B. Pritzker – bucked the trend. Illinois is the only state to abandon its school choice program, a modest one at that.

Moving forward

The irony of Illinois’ elimination of its “Invest in Kids” private-school scholarship program was its minimal cost. School property taxes are dedicated to CPS regardless of student enrollment and the state aid formula partially protects high poverty districts from enrollment losses.

The state needs to not only restore but to expand the Invest in Kids scholarship program.

The “equal protection” clause in the Illinois Constitution requires all children have the right to a free public education and are provided equal educational opportunity. It doesn’t mandate it be a government education. Districts routinely contract out with private and alternative schools. There are plenty of federal programs that support private education including Head Start, Pell grants, the G.I. Bill and the federal student loan program.

Back to our two schools in Chicago: CPS should let Hope Academy lease Manley’s building, giving students at Manley the opportunity to enroll in a far better school than they could ever hope to attend. With the restoration and expansion of Invest in Kids, Hope could admit hundreds of additional students whose poor families are desperately searching for a better school.

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