Amid the Chicago Teachers Union's demands during this week's strike, there is a quieter but no less important discussion occurring. Chicago's parents, activists, journalists, and regular citizens are discussing the performance of traditional public schools compared to the performance of charter public schools.
Charter schools are operated by many different private nonprofits. Where the private nonprofit Chicago Teachers Union provides teaching services to 86 percent of Chicago public schools, the remaining 14 percent–charter schools–draw their teachers from other places. In other words, charter school teachers do not need to be members of the Chicago Teachers Union.
So why does this matter?
It matters because not only do charter schools cost less per pupil, but they produce better student outcomes than traditional public schools. They are more productive than their traditional public school competitors, doing more educating with fewer dollars.
These claims and counterclaims are made often with each side citing their own data to prove their point. But today, education policy expert Jay P. Greene researched something about charter schools that should raise everyone's eyebrows. Instead of looking at aggregate performance (for example, graduation rates or test scores for all charter students), he compared test scores of the lowest income charter students with the lowest income traditional public school students.
Greene found charter school students outperform traditional public school students on reading and math in both the fourth and eighth grade (a common benchmark):
So I was curious as to how charter schools in Chicago compare academically to the district. I ran the NAEP numbers from the Trial Urban District Assessment for free and reduced lunch eligible general education students. This is about as close to an apples to apples comparison as you can get in the NAEP data-much smaller range in variation in family income, general education students.
This suggests you can take a poor, underperforming African-American or Latino child from a traditional public school and put him in a charter school, where he has the chance to improve or thrive educationally.
Because charter schools are free of the restrictions on teacher hiring, firing and evaluations that hamstring Chicago's traditional public schools, they recruit and retain demonstrably better educators. This is not to say there are no good teachers in traditional public schools–far from it. But it does suggest strongly that the inflexibility and high cost of unionized public school teachers does not help in educating students well. That is, of course, everyone's goal with taxpayer-financed, government-provided education, right?
Try as we might, we cannot choose the outcomes of schooling. Every student is different, which is a wonderful thing. But we can choose the means we employ to reach certain outcomes. If our means fail or don't succeed to the level we would prefer, we should reevaluate them and seek alternatives. For Chicago's students, charter schools are a good alternative that should be allowed to thrive.