Opinion: The high school where our kids belong

SHARE Opinion: The high school where our kids belong

Teachers demonstrate for better pay at UNO Charter School Network downtown headquarters in October. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Almost a decade ago, I chose to leave my job and return to school. My dream? A history classroom with a Lincoln bust on my desk and a new career in education.

My experience was a mixed bag, student-teaching at a large Chicago Public School neighborhood high school and later working full-time as a history teacher in a Chicago charter school.


I eventually quit and headed back to an office job as many do, especially in charters. But with charter school champion Betsy DeVos set to preside over federal education policy, I thought I might highlight some key differences between the public and charter school models.

Before we go to the T-chart, a couple preliminaries.

I’m not identifying either school because my points are about broader issues, not just schoolhouse particulars. That said, neither school is a top-performer and both qualify as about average in the context of CPS. The charter school, in fact, tests slightly below the public school.

Both schools have student populations that are predominantly minority — one African-American, the other Latino. Both schools also have a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches, meaning they’re from poor families.

Public high school      vs.  Charter high school

Library, with librariansNo library, no librarians
Large gym, gym classesGrade-school gym, no gym classes
Performing arts centerGrade-school gym
Video production lab
25-yard swimming pool, swim teams
Band room, band classes, marching band
Art classrooms, art classes
Drama classes, drama club
National Honors Society
International Baccalaureate curriculum
Auto shop, shop classes
Student council
Improv club
Literary journal

I’ll stop there. The pattern’s clear enough.

The charter school, which touts a science-and-math focus, is housed in a former elementary school that CPS decommissioned when nearby public housing was demolished. It still feels like a grade school, and none of its rooms or common spaces were designed for larger, teenage bodies. The school has a couple of nice science labs but lacks so much more. That it has no library pretty much says it all.

The public school, while not a feeder to the Ivy Leagues, looks and feels a lot more like what I suspect readers imagine when they read the words “high school.” It’s a comprehensive institution, offers a breadth of classes and activities to a wide range of students with varying abilities and interests, and it functions as a neighborhood hub. Parents and siblings attend plays, concerts, sporting events, the usual.

Importantly, the public school also offers continuity. Many of its teachers and staff are lifers. Like anywhere else, some of these lifers are great and dedicated teachers and some are phoning it in. But the chances your two or three kids would all have the same history or English teacher in ninth grade are far better at the public school. It’s more stable, and stability offers realistic opportunities to improve a lot of educational outcomes – as the school’s recent academic record shows.

The charter school was and remains anything but stable. The year I was hired to teach, all except one of the 10th grade teachers were new to the school, including English, math, history, and foreign language. All of them have since moved on, most after a single year. The principal who hired me is gone, the department chair is gone, dozens of teacher positions have turned over, in some cases multiple times, in the last five years.

It was always a scramble and it still is, in large part because these charter jobs are undesirable. They work on a burnout model and they pay poorly. Anyone who can get out, does. Some teach elsewhere, others find different jobs.

One reason the pay is so bad is the same reason people like Betsy DeVos and certain high-ranking Illinois politicians prefer charters: They cost less! Charter operators agree to take 75 cents on the dollar compared to what public schools receive. The charter schools then seek to make up that difference either through fundraising or cost-cutting, or both.

The fundraising responsibilities are, I suspect, another reason why people such as DeVos like charters so much. These schools are forced to ask rich donors for handouts, and the rich donors get a bunch of attention and influence they wouldn’t otherwise have. And what’s the point of wealth if not to achieve attention and influence?

During my time at the charter school, I attended an after-hours fundraiser hosted by a big-money guy inside his Wilmette home. A dozen or so hand-picked students attended in their school uniforms and we all got pizza, the kids got pop. There were several speeches and everyone agreed on the importance of education.

I ran into the big-money guy in the kitchen and he talked about school reform.

“What do you think about property tax reform?” I asked, meaning de-coupling statewide education funding from local property taxes.

The big-money guy walked away. Maybe I should have asked nicer.

On the way home that night, we drove by New Trier — a really great public high school.

The kind most of us imagine when we think of the high school where all our kids belong.

Brett McNeil is a writer and business investigator.

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