Vibrant Public Schools Hurt by For-Profit Charters
By Dan Montgomery
President, Illinois Federation of Teachers
When Professor Ray Budde first conceived charter schools in the 1970s, he had a vision for innovative schools that could be laboratories of best practices freed from many of the constraints of school district policies or contracts. Former American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker was an early supporter of the concept: charters would allow teachers to take risks and find new methods to improve teaching. Of course, Shanker never intended for them to be non-unionized or non-public. The goal was to enhance our strong public school system, not create a strain on its resources.
The IFT believes in a vibrant public school system that has room for the kind of charter schools Shanker envisioned: charter schools that embody the values of public education. This means such schools must be open to all students, operate transparently and accountably, and maintain a curriculum that considers input from parents, students, teachers and school staff. And—critically—the schools must arise from the desire of an informed local community expressed democratically.
Charters and neighborhood public schools are publicly funded. There are some excellent charter schools fulfilling their promise, just as there are many public schools doing the same. However, current research shows that charters, on the whole, do no better than regular public schools and do not serve all students. That’s why the IFT has proposed ending new charters and requiring all existing charters to maintain the same standards of transparency as neighborhood public schools. For example, traditional public schools must be staffed completely by licensed teachers, whereas the requirement for charters is three-fourths.
The disabilities-rights group, Equip for Equality, conducted a study of Chicago schools and found charter schools serve fewer students with special needs than their public school counterparts. These students are also more likely to leave or be expelled than special needs students at public schools. This sets up an unfair two-tiered school system. And, a recent study by the University of Minnesota law school found that charters in Chicago served to make racial segregation worse, a troubling development for our society.
Charters open as non-union schools. This means that teachers and other school workers put their jobs at risk every time they question management decisions and their impact on students. Many charter schools have organized unions to fix this problem.
One of the IFT’s local councils, the United Educators of UNO (UNO is a charter school network in Chicago), came very close to striking when negotiating a contract. After a series of cuts that hurt students, these brave teachers used their contract process to defend their classrooms. The strike was averted, and the IFT is proud that these charter teachers and staff were able to use their collective voice to create an agreement that safeguards a high quality of education for the kids they serve on several issues, including class size.
This happened in Chicago, but this is a public policy issue with broad impact across the state. Gov. Bruce Rauner, along with his close allies in the charter school lobby, is constantly pitching charters as the cure-all for all educational woes, while undercutting and deliberately underfunding public schools.
We see this at the national level, too, with President-elect Trump’s troubling choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos’ only experience with public schools has been her multi-million dollar efforts to destroy them in Detroit. The Republican mega-donor expanded for-profit charters with no regard for student outcomes and said public schools have “displaced” the church and reform can “advance God’s Kingdom.”
Clearly, we have our work cut out for us, but there couldn’t be a more important fight to take on. Teachers, parents, students, and other members of our communities need to come together to support our neighborhood schools and demand the resources our students deserve.