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On July 25, Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Bruno Behrend took part in the famous “Bughouse Square Debate” before an audience of 500 people in Washington Square Park in the North Side of Chicago. Behrend debated Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary School in Chicago’s Wrigleyville, on the question: “Public or private? What should be the future of public education in Chicago?”
The debate was passionate, yet civil. LaRaviere started explaining the difference between scientific data and the use of averages and overall data. He then espoused the virtues of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), quoting statistics and claiming CPS was outperforming charter schools in Chicago. To bolster his claims, he referenced the Chicago Sun-Times article “CPS outpaces charter schools in improvements, especially in reading.” LaRaviere later revealed the data was furnished by CPS.
Behrend’s argument was clear: The current large urban districts, the teachers unions, and the public school system itself, are willing to protect themselves with lobbying in Springfield and Washington, DC. The lobbyists use cherry-picked data that obscure the truth. Behrend stated: “There is not enough money in the world to implement a top-down bureaucratic approach that will work for everyone.”
Two questions Behrend asked the audience put the matter into a proper perspective:
- Why is there such a high demand for charter schools if CPS is working so well?
- If CPS is doing so great, why are nearly 40 percent of the students not graduating?
Behrend went on to highlight the rights of parents to choose, for whatever reason they deemed important, the school and education for their children. He called for the breaking up of large urban districts such as CPS into local parent councils, wards, or individual schools run by excellent principals, such as LaRaviere.
LaRaviere, in praising CPS, also directly called parents who wanted out of CPS uninformed and misled due to continual talk of failing schools. This was reiterated during the audience Q&A. An audience member brought up the fact nearly 40 percent of CPS teachers choose to send their children to private schools. LaRaviere admitted that both teachers and principals do this.
Behrend noted the best “vote” a parent could make was not for mayor or alderman, but taking an education savings account and vote with the money following their child to the school of their choice, thus opening up a “vast new array of education opportunities.”
The crowd was heavily skewed center-left, with dozens of CPS teachers in attendance. Questions from the audience were heavily tilted to the protection of public schools and against capitalism. Behrend handled the audience questions deftly. There were two particular instances that stood out.
The first was an attack on Heartland as a stakeholder in education. Behrend rejected the premise of the question itself and the underlying connotation that unless one is certified by the system or employed by the system, one does not have a right to criticize it. He stated, “Everyone here is a taxpayer and is paying for the system.”
The second notable interaction with the audience when the questions turned to corporations and their profits. The audience, i.e. teachers union members, reacted very negatively when Behrend pointed out the union itself was actually a corporation.
At the end of the lively event, the debate moderator stated, “This is the most civil and best debate I can remember here at the Bughouse Square Debates.”