In Defense of Public Education

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 17:  Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside of the Jose De Diego Community Academy on
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 17: Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside of the Jose De Diego Community Academy on September 17, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. More than 26,000 teachers and support staff walked off of their jobs on September 10 after the Chicago Teachers Union failed to reach an agreement with the city on compensation, benefits and job security. With about 350,000 students, the Chicago school district is the third largest in the United States. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Though the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune has run article after article excoriating the Chicago Teacher's Union, none have piqued my disdain quite like its Tuesday, September 11th editorial entitled, "Don't Cave, Mr. Mayor." That editorial is, to my knowledge, the first from a major Chicago media outlet to call for the destruction of a teacher's union through the privatization of education.

If I ignore the contradictory argument in the article that the strike is not really about money, yet the teachers should just accept a deal because the district is offering a raise, I can agree with them that this strike is about the future of Chicago. We just have a different notion of what that future should look like.

For the Tribune, that ideal future seems to be a privatized education system, wherein public schools no longer exist. The Tribune is very explicit in its belief that the solution to the educational issues of Chicago is the destruction of the Chicago Teachers Union. The problem is that they never explain why this will actually improve student education.

The Tribune article asserts that Chicago has been a laboratory for school reform and yet fails to mention what effective reform looks like. I can only assume that it is referring to the Renaissance 2010 project, which closed over a hundred neighborhood schools and replaced them with charter schools or other, more independently functioning, schools. Yet the Tribune article never get into the details of whether or not these reforms were actually beneficial to students. So, were they?

Chicago Catalyst reported that students at Chicago charter schools (which are publicly funded schools that are run by private corporate entities) scored at the same level as students across the district. This would mean that even with all their built-in advantages such as less accountability to CPS institutional bureaucracy, a higher percentage of "involved" parents, the ability to kick out students for discipline infractions, and the ability to accept lower percentages of special needs students, charter schools are performing at about the same level as the schools they replaced. Stanford researchers have also found that the vast majority of charter schools perform at the same level or worse than similar public schools. If charters do not improve student performance, why exactly should we turn all CPS schools into charters?

If teacher unions are the problem with education, why aren't there outcries to create charter schools throughout Chicago's North Shore and other suburban neighborhoods? It's because people in those neighborhoods realize that the public education model with unionized employees, when properly supported, is effective. In fact, research suggests that the presence of teacher unions improves student test scores. Students in the 10 "right to work" states in the United States tend to score much lower the national median on NAEP tests. Teacher unions are not the problem with education: they can be, should be, and are part of the solution.

So why should Chicagoans refuse to accept a future where charter schools replace public schools? There are a variety of reasons, ranging from problems with accountability, to the ramifications of a corporate takeover of a public institution. However, I feel the most important reason, and the one that will do the most harm to the students, is that the charter school model will destroy the profession of teaching.

Teachers widely agree that with each additional year of classroom experience, they improve their practice. All teachers must begin their careers at some point, but the bedrock of our educational system must be the presence of good, experienced, teachers. Teacher experience matters: it matters to the teachers themselves, it matters to the stability of schools and it matters to the success of students.

With that in mind, the vast majority of charter schoolteachers and operators are good people. They are trying to create schools and classrooms that effectively educate students, and they believe in what they are doing -- just as unionized public teachers do. But their good intentions cannot compensate for the problems of teacher retention in the charter school system. Charter school operators admit that retaining good teacher talent is essential to building a good school. The problem is that charter schools are unable to do this effectively. Teachers at charter schools are 130 percent more likely to leave their job than those at traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools are able to retain teachers by offering a comfortable middle class salary, benefits, and a pension. Teachers get into the profession out of a love for teaching-- not to get rich. The stability of the public school system allows highly educated, highly skilled, and experienced professionals to continue to pursue advanced education and professional development that brings innovation and resources to their schools and their classrooms. Furthermore, it allows teachers to feel fairly compensated for the hard work that they do.

Unfortunately, charter schools do not offer that same stability. Charter schools often push teachers to work even longer hours than traditional public schools in equally tough conditions, but cap their salaries at a lower rate than comparable public schools. They also (in almost all cases) deny their workers the right to unionize to demand better salary and benefits. Is it any surprise that charter schoolteachers are four times more likely to leave their job than unionized public school teachers?

The Tribune's vision of the future of Chicago, of a charter school system that is unable to retain its teachers, will be detrimental to the education of the students in Chicago. Teaching as a life-long profession will become a thing of the past. The charter school system would cycle through new and energetic teachers in a few years, and then replace them with the next batch of inexperienced teachers. This never-ending cycle would likely cut costs and prevent future teacher strikes, but it would also greatly reduce the number of good teachers -- those that have furthered their education and development in the profession, and those who have the real world experience in the classroom to put their education and development into masterful practice. If we all agree that good teaching is essential in education, then can't we also agree that a system that pushes out good, experienced teachers -- and makes it almost impossible for new teachers to have the ability and incentive to develop their profession-- is bad for students?

So you might ask: if many charter schools have a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers, and perform at a comparable level to traditional public schools, why does experienced teaching matter? If charter schools replace all of our traditional public schools, the advantages that charter schools currently hold would be gone. Charters would be forced to accept and teach all students, no matter their discipline, special education, or parental involvement issues. In this world, with a revolving door of inexperienced teachers ill-equipped to handle those issues, Chicago would see its student test scores decrease, and a decline in the overall educational experience of its students.

Instead of that vision for Chicago, I hope for a future with strong neighborhood schools where teachers work together with CPS to create safe environments and strong learning communities. I hope for a future Chicago where students learn in classrooms that have small class sizes (which research suggests is beneficial to student learning) and sufficient technology (computer labs, libraries, and climate-controlled environments). I hope for a future Chicago where principals evaluate teachers using a fair, objective, and multi-faceted system, not one that is largely based on student standardized tests (which have been found to be unreliable and invalid at measuring teacher performance). I encourage Chicagoans to share my vision of the future, and to speak out against those that seek to privatize our public education system.