A battle is brewing over school choice in Chicago. Parents demonstrated in front of city Alderman Roderick Sawyer’s office on Wednesday, protesting his proposed moratorium on new charter schools.
“It is clear that I and my neighbors are supportive of charter schools,” said Jahmal Cole, community activist and resident of Sawyer’s sixth ward. “Over 1,000 children from the ward attend charters, and the polling is clear that families support public charter schools.”
Charter Parents United, an activist group, is also fighting Sawyer’s plan. “Unfortunately the political debate has created an ‘us vs. them’ mentality as opposed to supporting great public schools no matter what type of school it is,” said Carlos Perez, Executive Director for Charter Parents United in a press release. “Families simply do not care about the type of school it is, families care about a quality, safe environment that allows for their children to be ready for college, career and life; many charter schools in Chicago are doing just that.”
Chicago charter school mom Lucy Rees told Opportunity Lives that her children, whom she refers to as her “students” or “scholars,” travel across town to attend better schools. For Rees and her family, the long trip is worth it because charter schools “have been the epitome of the growth of my students, the growth of my scholars.”
Charter school mother Lucy Rees addresses the school choice rally in Chicago’s 6th Ward. Charter schools “have been the epitome of the growth of my students,” Rees says. | Photo: Charter Parents United
Rees is fighting against the moratorium not just for her own children, but also for the community. “I know, right now, charters are working for a lot of families, not just mine, for a lot of families who don’t have great choices within their communities,” she said. The problem with a moratorium, Rees explained, is “you’re stopping something that works versus fixing something that doesn’t work. I have a problem with that.”
Charter schools are not the only school choice options available to Chicago parents. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools looked into enrollment data and found that 70 percent of high school students have taken advantage of choice by enrolling in a school other than the school for which they were zoned. The majority of students choose another district-run school, but some attend charters or other types of schools.
“Every day Chicago parents send their children to school to fulfill the promise of education — the promise that this generation will surpass the success of their parents, that children’s dreams in kindergarten are attainable,” INCS President Andrew Broy said in a statement, “One in two parents know what has gone unsaid for far too long — the school around the corner isn’t always the best place to fulfill their dreams. Why haven’t we as a city questioned the policy of zoning children to schools that have historically underperformed?”
Jelani McEwan, INCS director of external affairs, said that in a city like Chicago, school choice means more than just educational opportunity.
“You have to look at the history of Chicago,” he told Opportunity Lives. “The city has been highly segregated by race and socio-economic class for a very long time, and it’s not a coincidence that, in certain neighborhoods where there are large minority populations, or are very vulnerable as far as income is concerned, those areas have always had the lowest performing schools.”
“The presumption was always that, because those areas were in quote-unquote ‘blighted communities,’ they just were harder to educate and students just couldn’t be successful. That was a wrong assumption,” McEwan said. “The charter sector is growing and getting parents the ability to opt out of schools that have not served them well is just showing that, when you have people who believe in the students with high expectations and a vision for their school, no matter where the kid comes from, they can succeed.”
McEwan pointed out that school choice doesn’t necessarily mean leaving district schools altogether. “I think Chicago, especially with the high school data,” he said, “the story is playing out in a much larger scale because, even with charter schools as an option, most kids are going to other district-run schools.”
The data also show that students are leaving the lowest-performing schools and nearly always attend a school that is equal to or better than the school for which they were zoned. This shows that parents are invested in making good choices for their children, and are putting in the time to research their options, McEwan said.
“Parents are really doing an excellent job of navigating the choices available to them and optimizing the best public education they can get for their student,” he explained.
For McEwan, school choice hits close to home. “Where I grew up on the south side of Chicago,” he said, “my mom struggled to pay private school tuition for me because she just didn’t trust the schools I would have been assigned to.”
For families that don’t have that option, school choice is key in changing lives. “When you look at the way in which school has the ability to impact life trajectories in terms of preparing young people for the workforce, preparing them to live in broader society, having schools that underserve kids is detrimental to their development,” McEwan said.
Education quality issues affect some groups more than others. “They really only hit people living in low-income communities, and they really only hit black and brown families, especially in Chicago on the south and west side,” McEwan explained. “So I think that it is a civil rights issue.”
In Chicago, the goal isn’t just to provide a certain kind of choice in education, it’s to provide a variety of choices that will best serve the students because, as McEwan pointed out, “you have to invest in a variety of models; there’s not a one-size-fits all.”
Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.