With the news that the Chicago Public Schools and the striking Chicago Teacher's Union may be close to an agreement, it's important to note that even when the strike is over the issues raised will still be unresolved.
We've been reminded (if we let it slip our minds for a moment) through the ongoing saga of conflict betweet CPS and CTU that our public education system is in peril. The problems are both systemic and political; a deadly combination.
We've listened to the pundits, politicians and teachers. Everyone is gloom and dooming and it's hard to separate the spin from the facts. Here's what we know will be true after the dust settles, no matter what the terms of the teacher contract.
Most CPS Students Live in Poverty
The most important factor determining successful educational outcome is money. Not per pupil expenditure, mind you, but the economic status of the student. In CPS, 82% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. In a classroom of 30 students, that means 25 of them experience real hunger on a regular basis. There are students who come to school on Monday morning without having eaten at all since lunch on Friday.
Students whose parents can't afford clothes, much less the cost of frequent washing at the laundromat. Students who have family members- even parents- in jail. Students who live with the nightly wails of police sirens and grieving family members who are mourning yet another shooting victim on the streets of Chicago.
Students who don't have a safe place to do homework. Students whose mothers and fathers didn't have safe places to do homework. Internet access? Pffft.
Eighty-two percent. It's the number that holds the key to the future success of the students, teachers, and school district.
Charter Schools Will Remain A Source of Contention
Either reviled or championed, charter schools are the emblem of troubled school districts. They are under the jurisdiction of a school district, are publicly funded and privately run- and free from much of district bureaucracy....and from the same requirements of accountability. Opponents say they threaten the future of public school education; proponents believe them to be the future. Charter schools are, some say, a mere step away from vouchers. (Which does, in fact, take money out of the pool of public school funding and redirect it to private schools.)
Do charter schools outperfom their counterparts? Carol Marin of the Chicago Sun-Times quotes a former CPS administrator who says no.
“I ran the numbers when I was at CPS,” said Terry Mazany, former interim CPS superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. “Charters, based on . . . being freed from restrictions of bureaucracy, should be knocking the socks off neighborhood schools. But they’re not. It’s a dead heat."
According to The Center for Public Education, the jury's still out.
The incomplete research base behind charters means that many states may be heading into a reform strategy without a clear understanding of how charter schools work best, or how they interact with and affect traditional public schools. Charter schools need more research, oversight, and true evaluation to fulfill their purpose of being laboratories that traditional public schools can learn from.
CTU hates them. Mayor Emanuel loves them. This part of the conversation is far from over.
CPS Has Budget Problems
Chicago Public Schools are operating with a deficit budget. Either budgets are (further) cut, or taxes must be raised. At some point, something has to give. Teachers deserve competitive salaries, and students deserve to have maintained facilities and support services that are able to address the needs of a economically disadvantaged student population. Currently, many students are in schools without libraries, without current and appropriate instructional materials, without adequate staffing and without performance enhancing curriculum enrichment. Class sizes are impossibly high. CPS can't fix the poverty of its students, but it can and should ensure that when they cross the threshold of any CPS school, they receive as good an education as if they were at, for example, the Lab. And that takes money.
D is for Dysfunction, P is for Politicians
If we all learned nothing else from watching and reading about the CTU strike, we certainly learned that the teachers do not trust the administration. The list of transgressions is long and well-documented. Until both sides are able to find a way to work together and see each other as partners, not adversaries, students will suffer. Throwing a mayor with an agenda in the mix- a mayor who sends his own children to a private school- doesn't help. Other school districts have sought the assistance of mediators and conflict resolution specialists to resolve personality and professional differences after a strike.
While there is always bound to be conflict in any large school district, this is a level of distrust that won't magically disappear with a mayoral wand.
So. Good luck with that.