Vallas: Only school choice can revive Chicago’s education system, save our kids

Vallas: Only school choice can revive Chicago’s education system, save our kids

With the public education system failing students, the only way to ensure all children have access to a good education is to expand educational options for all.

The problem: Chicago schools are failing students, and CPS is shrinking

By many measures, the city of Chicago is struggling. Among the most critical factors driving the city’s problems is its chronically underperforming and rapidly shrinking Chicago Public Schools system. Long dominated by the Chicago Teachers Union, it is the city’s socio-economic Achilles’ heel. No amount of money will change that, and Chicagoans are tired of declines.

Today, just 33% of Chicagoans are satisfied with public education in the city. The sooner our political leaders are honest about CPS’s problems and muster the courage to do something about them, the faster the city will have a chance to address them and reverse the decades-long decline.

Chicagoans pay the second-most per student when compared to the nation’s 50 largest school districts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s hundreds and even thousands of dollars more than other big cities such as Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Denver and Dallas. Only New York City spends more. When general, capital and debt spending is included, CPS spent nearly $30,000 per student in 2023.

CPS consumes the majority of the city’s property taxes, over 25% of all state K-12 funding and a significant portion of Illinois’ federal K-12 funding (including 40% of federal COVID relief funds allocated to Illinois schools under the CARES Act). This year CPS had a record $9.4 billion budget, an increase of more than 20% since 2019, despite campuses being closed for almost 17 straight months and an enrollment loss of almost 37,000 students. For that massive investment of tax dollars, Chicago residents receive abysmal academic performance and a steady exodus of students from the public schools as families increasingly view CPS as woefully inadequate.

State test scores for CPS students, already disappointing pre-pandemic, plummeted after 2019. In 2022, State Board of Education data showed only 11% of Black students read at grade level and nearly 6% were proficient in math. Only 17% of Latino students were reading at grade level and 11% were proficient in math. University of Chicago Crime Lab analysis points to significant increases in crimes against and being committed by school-age youth. From 2019-2021, shooting victimizations for children aged 17 years and younger increased by more by 50%. More than 90% of the youth victims were not enrolled in school at the time.

Meanwhile, the CPS system is so unpopular it has seen 11 straight years of declining enrollment, resulting in an enrollment drop of 116,500 students during the past 20 years. CPS recently lost the title of the nation’s third-largest school district, as Miami surpassed it. This lack of confidence in the public schools is a driving force for the exodus of middle-class families from Chicago.

Despite the district shrinking, the state’s education funding formula is guaranteeing CPS continues to receive more money every year – to educate fewer and fewer students. In addition to receiving over half of all property taxes paid in Chicago, CPS also gets a significant share of state and federal funding. The schools’ share of property tax revenues is guaranteed regardless of enrollment levels while both the state and federal funding formulas are driven by poverty weightings, which helps offset enrollment losses. This is how the district increased spending by more than 20% while losing more than 10% of its enrollment since 2019. The push for the “needs-based formula” is just an attempt to protect districts such as Chicago from enrollment losses by moving farther away from having state aid follow the kids.

A 2019 study by WBEZ documented the massive exodus of Chicago’s middle-income residents who now constitute only 16% of the city’s population, as compared to 50% in 1970. The percentage would be single digits if not for the city and school district public employee residency requirements which affect well over 80,000 public employees and their families. The greatest exodus has been Black residents, as more than 265,000 left the city from 2000 to 2020, many from middle-income families with school-age children.

A barrier to reform and a driver of public-school failure: The hyper-political Chicago Teachers Union

The Chicago Teachers Union, which has moved away from focusing on teacher compensation and benefits and toward pushing a radical political agenda, is the biggest opponent to expanding school choice in the city. One example is the union’s efforts to block renewal of the state’s modest tax credit scholarship program, “Invest in Kids.” The disastrous results from remote learning during COVID, which continued far too long at the urging of teachers unions, should have prompted Illinois leaders to pursue school choice, which nearly two-thirds of Illinoisans support. Children who were able to stay in private-school classrooms have not seen the same dramatic levels of learning loss as their public-school counterparts who were locked out longer.

The union has sought to limit even public school choices by forcing the district to cap not only new charter schools but also charter school enrollment. This despite the popularity of charters, which serve 54,000 students in CPS, including one-fourth of all high school and one-tenth of elementary school students. For many Black and Latino families, who comprise 97.8% of charter school enrollment in Chicago, charters are the only alternative to their failing local schools.

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 tracked charter-school outcomes over 15 years, covering over 2 million charter students in 29 states. Its conclusions are unequivocal: Most charter schools “produce superior student gains despite enrolling a more challenging student population.” Black and Hispanic students in charter schools advance more than their peers by large margins in both math and reading.

Equally compelling is research done by the preeminent economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell, author of “Charter Schools and Their Enemies.” Sowell focused on more than 100 New York City schools in which both charter school and traditional public school students shared the same building. In the traditional public school setting, just 14% of classes had a majority of their students proficient in English, and for math that number was just 10%. In the charter schools, those figures were 65% for English and 68% for math.

The only choice is school choice: Here’s how it should work

The public-school choice debate is an important one as we tackle the challenges of transforming historically underserved communities. Only school choice will allow communities to tackle the challenges of transforming historically underserved populations. School choice means funding follows the student, instead of being tied to the school district. Under this system, communities are empowered to decide what school model best serves a specific community’s needs, and parents are empowered to decide what school is best for their children, whether public or private.

School choice can take a few different forms. Here are some examples of what it looks like when it works best.

Community choice

The best kind of school models bring together educators, families, and community partners to meet students’ and families’ academic and non-academic needs and strengthen local communities. This approach is called a “community school.”

It’s an important model, because it acknowledges a well-rounded education involves the participation of many different groups. Which prompts a series of questions: Why isn’t every school a community school? Why isn’t every school inviting outside groups to help expand learning opportunities; health and social supports and services; family and community engagement? Why aren’t all schools opening their campuses in the early morning and keeping them open through the afternoons, evenings, weekends, holidays and through into the summer? Can community schools be empowered to lengthen the instructional day and year? Substitute paid student work-study for irrelevant course offerings? Select better school models?

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Chicago Teachers Union claim to embrace a community school model. The mayor’s transition team report recommends the city expand the number of community schools from 20 to 50 (of the district’s over 500 campuses) in the near term and to 200 in the long term, eventually having all schools serve as community hubs. But the fact remains their community school model offers schools little real autonomy.

The reason a true community choice model has not taken root in modern education is because the education bureaucracy doesn’t allow for it. The centralized command and control organizational structure and restrictive collective bargaining agreements work against the concept of community schools because they allow no real local school autonomy. Real community empowerment means creating community schools that are truly autonomous. That means the majority of funding follows the children. Schools are granted broad autonomy over programs, staffing, the school calendar and expenditure priorities. The community, through elected Local School Councils, is given autonomy to select better school models that meet the children’s and community’s needs.

Nationally, a growing number of city 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, not always charters, that have been partially liberated from district funding intercepts that divert money from local schools 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 choices. 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. 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 is a partner to the portfolio of independent schools. The district office performs the critical function of holding those autonomous schools accountable for improved academic performance and sound financial management of district funds. It can decline to renew operating agreements with schools that fail to meet their performance metrics, and has done so.

It’s time to liberate the school 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 such as the 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 and guidance of the district, the school model that will best meet the needs of the school’s children.

Parental choice

Parents of students could wait for the district to turn itself around and improve. That is, after all, what school choice opponents advocate for when they say state leaders should focus on improving public schools rather than giving families access to other options. But what if families aren’t willing to risk their children’s future on a potentially empty promise that their neighborhood school will suddenly improve? Parents should have the power and means to select the best school that meets their child’s needs – public or private.

Despite the politically charged rhetoric from defenders of the failed status quo, private school tuition assistance doesn’t drain funding from traditional public schools. If a student opts to attend a private school, the state and local money designated for that student simply follows them to the school that educates them. For a private school, that amount can be capped at the school’s tuition costs, which in most cases will be much less than what the public school has been spending to educate the student, resulting in the district actually saving money. The Fordham Institute offers a deep dive into the impact of tuition scholarship programs.

Chicago could implement its own choice program

In Chicago, the mayor must aggressively pursue state authorization allowing CPS to provide direct funding to parents, to be used in the school of their choice. But the mayor doesn’t have to wait for the legislature to act. Chicago can enact its own direct funding program with City Council approval. The CPS budget is at a record $9.4 billion, and this doesn’t even include $1 billion in uncommitted COVID money. With that massive amount of spending, equivalent to nearly $30,000 per student, there is little if any reason why the City Council can’t divert a portion of the $400 million in annual special city subsidies to provide support for school choice.

The city could also dedicate a portion of the schools’ annual tax increment financing   surplus – almost $1 billion this year – to fund an expanded private school scholarship program. The TIF surplus is a windfall as the property tax money that is diverted to the TIF program is not lost to the schools or city because the tax rate rises to give them what they levied for. TIF’s effectively raise your property taxes.

Another, even-more effective approach would be to have the school district allow parochial and other private schools to register as contract school providers. Such an approach would enable the district to keep the students in their student head count for purposes of state and federal aid. Contrary to what the teachers unions claim, government funding is not exclusive to public education programs. There are a plethora of programs that support private education services. Take, for example, the Head Start program, federal Pell grant and the G.I. Bill, which helps veterans pay for private or public school or training.

Illinois’ own Monetary Award Program grants are awarded based on a student’s financial need to pay for tuition and other post-secondary educational expenses, including at private institutions. Illinois public schools have long contracted out with private entities to provide special education and other school services.

Conclusion: All students deserve a high-quality education

The Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires all children living in the United States to be provided equal educational opportunity. It doesn’t mandate it be a government education. Yet teachers unions have worked overtime to deny parents educational choice and limit any community empowerment that threatens their monopoly. Unrestricted access to quality school choices regardless of where you live or your household income is an equal right.

Those well-versed in civil rights history see denial of school choice amounts to educational redlining. School choice should be at the heart of any truly progressive agenda. Real school choice would allow communities to select models that best serve the community’s needs. It would let low-income families send their public dollars to the school they want their child to attend. It is time to free America’s children and reconstitute a regressive and discriminatory education system that is contributing to generational poverty and violence.

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