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The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s administration reached a tentative agreement to avert what would have been the second teachers strike in Chicago in four years. The concession that raised the most eyebrows is the agreement the city made to place a cap on the number of charter schools allowed within Chicago and a cap on enrollment. If the deal is approved by CTU’s rank-and-file, it will be the first union contract in a major U.S. city that places a cap on charter schools.
CTU is using its leverage as a quasi-monopoly to hamstring any potential competitors and turn back the clock to when it was the only game in town. And when you consider CTU’s competitors, charter schools, consistently outperform CPS in virtually every education-related metric—in spite of CTU teachers being, even before this latest agreement, the highest compensated educators ($78,910 median salary with $27,500 in average benefits) of all the big-city teachers in the United States—it’s easy to understand why CTU’s demand to cap charters is an important one.
The evidence is overwhelming: Charters are eating their CTU peers’ lunch. A random-controlled study by professors at Harvard University and the Columbia Business School found attending a Chicago charter school “improves reading and math scores by an amount that is both statistically and substantively significant. Additionally 98 percent of students enrolled in Chicago’s charter schools are black or Hispanic, and 92 percent are classified as “low-income.” Charters have also been found to increase college persistence and enrollment, retain and graduate more of their students than their district competitors, and generally see more growth academically out of their students.
Other national studies have found urban charters outperform their traditional district school peers, do not increase school segregation, and suspend their students for disciplinary infractions at lower rates. It is no wonder then charter schools are so popular nationally with black parents, 76 percent of whom say they favor school choice, according to the American Federation for Children.
Granted, outperforming a CTU-staffed school isn’t very hard to do. Only 30 percent of CPS 4th graders and 25 percent of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in mathematics on the 2015 version of the National Assessment for Educational Progress test, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Only 27 percent of 4th graders and 24 percent of 8th graders did so in reading. Fewer than 30 percent of CPS high school students scored at least a 21 on the ACT exam, the score needed to be considered ready for college-level work.
Chicago parents are already looking for ways to remove their children from poorly-run, CTU-staffed neighborhood schools. Nearly half of all CPS students are opting out of their local zoned neighborhood school and attending a different district-run school, with 29 percent of all opt-out families choosing to send their children to charter schools. It is reasonable to believe even more would do so if more charter opportunities were available in the Windy City.
There are, of course, charters that produce poor outcomes for the children who attend them. Charter schools are not a cure-all for America’s underperforming education system. School vouchers and education savings accounts, neither of which is available in Illinois, are preferable school choice options, as the gold-standard empirical evidence shows. Still, charter schools schould have their place. Nationally, they have provided a way out of failing traditional public schools for nearly three million children, and they provide competition for a bloated, sclerotic, unaccountable union-run public school system. This competition helps improve outcomes not just for the children who take advantage of school choice programs, but also for those who remain in their neighborhood public schools.
Chicago charters already have thousands of students stuck on waiting lists, so it’s clear the demand is real and growing each the year. A child’s school should not be determined by his or her zip code, nor should education be used as a bargaining chip between two parties for whom students are not the first priority. All parents, regardless of income or neighborhood, should be allowed to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend an effective school without having to endure the continual tug-of-war between school districts and teachers unions.