The debate surrounding Chicago’s education future is becoming more and more polarized. Each side wants you to believe that what they’re preaching is gospel, and what the other side is promoting is heresy. You’re either for kids, or against them; you are a corporate elitist or a union hack; you support Mayor Rahm Emanuel or you support teachers union president Karen Lewis.
While there are many substantive issues that should continue to be debated, the focus on charter schools vs. neighborhood schools is unproductive and further widens this divide. We need to move away from the “us vs. them” rhetoric, and find common ground — and that starts with the gospel of accountability.
Accountability means that every school should be held to the same standard. No child should be denied access to a high quality education provided by motivated and effective teachers, but no school should get a free pass. To be clear, Democrats for Education Reform -—Illinois (DFER-IL) supports increasing education opportunities for Chicago students. This means strengthening our neighborhood schools, more International Baccalaureate schools, more STEM schools, greater access to magnet schools and, yes, more charter schools.
Undermining this vision are reports that charter schools fail to live up to the standard that we would expect, or that our children deserve. More freedom and strong leaders should equal greater student success, but that hasn’t been the case across the board. Charter advocates can do something about this: push for the closure of underperforming charter schools.
Why not? We demand accountability from our neighborhood schools and, as parents, we hold the individuals who teach our children to as high a standard as we hold ourselves. We cannot treat charter schools that fail to make the grade any differently. Period.
Not only does it slander the work of the excellent charter schools in Chicago, it fuels the argument that charters aren’t any better than neighborhood schools — which we know isn’t true. In fact, Illinois ACT results show that of the top 10 non-selective high schools in our city, nine of them are charter high schools. Yet, a 2013 Stanford University study says that one in five CPS elementary charter schools produce student growth in reading and math that is significantly worse than neighborhood schools. That’s unacceptable.
The bottom line is that supporters of charter schools need to practice what we preach. If a charter isn’t up to snuff, shut it down. If a neighborhood school can’t make the grade, turn it around. CPS closed two charters last year, but more work needs to be done. If our mission is for better schools and a better future for our kids, we should demand greater accountability across the board.
We call on the Chicago Teachers Union to join us in promoting Chicago’s highest performing schools, and in identifying those schools that fail to deliver. Both sides of this issue can agree that good schools, whether they’re charter, or neighborhood or magnet, deserve recognition, while chronically underperforming schools should be turned around or closed. Real accountability requires that we reward success, and acknowledge its absence, with equal fervor. We hope they share our goal.
Rebeca Nieves-Huffman is state director of Democrats for Education Reform — Illinois (DFER-IL), an education advocacy group.