The Little Red Schoolhouse

The Chicago Tribune reports that an effort to allow kids to leave their failing schools for better ones through a school voucher program has been killed by the unions.

A measure to let students in Chicago's worst-performing and most-overcrowded elementary schools use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools was defeated in the Illinois House on Wednesday, giving teachers unions a major victory.

... Charles McBarron, a spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, contended the voucher program would divert millions of dollars to private schools, a move he said in these tough economic times is "indefensible."

Support for the school voucher program crossed party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans argued that the vouchers were necessary to give the kids a fighting chance against a system almost determined to steal their future. The appeals were delivered in language that would do justice to condemned men fighting to stay alive on death row. But the entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Fighting back tears during the lengthy debate, Rep. Suzanne Bassi, R-Palatine, called on fellow lawmakers to "search your souls" to support the measure because "we have failed these kids in the inner-city schools."

"I'm pleading with you," said Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, who represents an area with four public schools where students would have been eligible for vouchers. "I'm begging you. Help me help kids in my district."

The Chicago Public School (CPS) system is the second largest employer in the city, according to Wikipedia, and is directly under Mayor Richard Daley's control. It's performance is nothing short of disastrous. The percentage of CPS students who went on to earn a bachelor's degree is half the national average.

Chicago has a history of high dropout rates, with around half of students failing to graduate for the past 30 years. Criticism is directed at the CPS for inflating its performance figures. Through such techniques as counting students who swap schools before dropping out as transfers but not dropouts, it publishes graduation claims as high as 71%. Nonetheless, throughout the 1990s actual rates seem to have improved slightly, as true graduation estimates rose from 48% in 1991 to 54% in 2004.

Chicago teacher Gary Latman described life in the CPS in Chicago Now. Latman recalled how Daley replaced Paul Vallas, who refused to let 7th Graders graduate if they couldn't read properly. Not letting the kids graduate "was unpopular with the communities affected and Daley couldn't have that."  And so things were fixed. Latman describes a dog-eat-dog educational world where Jesse Jackson showed up to play politics; where computer illiterate persons were placed in charge of computers; how computer networks once set up were disconnected so that they could be repaired by people who then left them unrepaired.

Dr. Gibbs was replaced by another of Arne Duncan's wunderkind principals during the summer of 2007, Kenyatta Butler Stansberry. She managed to dismantle the computer network, putting me back in the English classroom. She gave me 5 freshmen classes and a 9th grade division, surely a recipe for my failure. I had our network set up so everyone could log into any computer using their domain name and password, and see a folder with their name on it for storage and retrieval of files. This was for teachers and students and other staff as well. Butler-Stansberry brought in a vendor who disconnected us from the Instructional domain and set up a sub-domain, and when his funds were used up, computers began to be left unrepaired.

Another teacher's grievance site recounts the chaos even within the unionized system itself. Byzantine rules, blind bureaucracy and favoritism create human sumps where people sat around lobbying for jobs when not otherwise occupied doing makework for the system or the legal profession.

In 2008, I unexpectedly found myself in the “Teacher Reassignment Pool”. As time passed I met hundreds of tenured, certified, qualified and highly qualified teachers with advanced degrees and other educational credentials. Among the credentials held by these teachers were National Board Certification, MA, MS, and PhD degrees. These teachers also had excellent and superior ratings, yet they had been removed from their classrooms and placed in categories whereby they were filing letters, sitting in the library and acting as security personnel. While we worked in mundane and rudimentary positions for which we were overqualified, non-certified, non-tenured, inexperienced teachers worked in our classrooms. These teachers deserve a chance to pursue their careers, but not at our expense. For many months I waited for the Chicago Teachers Union to take action. During this time, to my horror, I found that PSRPs had no Reassignment Pool and went straight to the unemployment line. I phoned on numerous occasions to see what the Union was doing to help us. One Field Rep. told me to write CTU President Marilyn Stewart a letter and send a copy to him.

I began organizing my colleagues, reassigned and displaced teachers. We began meeting on a regular basis. Members of the Coalition for Stronger Democratic Union (CSDU) had been attending all of our meetings. During this time, CSDU members never discussed the fact that they were a caucus running for the union offices. They listened to us, and spoke with members concerning their issues, offered expert advice and assisted in filing grievances and made monetary contributions. Their actions resulted in some of the Displaced And Reassigned Teachers (DARTS) members getting their jobs back.

It's a place where you have to be a Community Organizer to avoid going "straight to the unemployment line". It is the portrait of a school system run for political and spoils purposes rather than for education. The picture is of a dog-eat-dog, wheeler-dealer madhouse. One from which there is no escape, either by the teachers trapped within its toils or the students condemned to a life of ignorance and underachievement by being manacled to it.

Before the vote was taken the Chicago Tribune described the plight of one parent sunk in its quicksands.

She wanted Kerisma to attend a nearby charter school, but a long wait list forced her to enroll the 12-year-old at Price, a neighborhood school struggling with some of Chicago's lowest test scores.

"I had to send her to the first school available," said Johnson, who recently moved to Kenwood. "She could be doing better. She's not failing, but she's borderline."

Mothers such as Johnson soon could have a few more options. Landmark school voucher legislation working its way through the Capitol would allow children to transfer from city elementary schools that rank in the bottom 10 percent in district test scores to private and parochial schools. Some students in the most overcrowded schools in high-poverty areas also would be eligible.

The students each would take about $3,700 in state money with them, a key element in a pilot program aimed to begin in fall 2011 that's meant to set up competition for public schools.

Like the movie The Great Escape we now know that all the would-be escapees have been recaptured. The union victory in the CPS may be the start of a nationwide campaign to close of all the alternatives open to parents.  One of the threats to the unions has been the Charter Schools.  "Chicago has a growing number of Charter Schools who receive over half of their operating budgets from the same tax sources as CPS. The teachers are not members of a union, and do not receive tenure. In 2009 the number of charter schools in Illinois increased to 45 from 30 by decision of the state legislature." The reason for their popularity is simple: they are better than the regular public schools.

Charter schools and campuses out-performed their relative neighborhood schools on 86 percent of the relative student performance measures. All 14 charter schools reporting on the ISAT composite scores had a higher percentage of students meeting and exceeding Illinois Learning Standards than their comparison neighborhood schools. All six charter high schools reporting on PSAE composite scores had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding Illinois Learning Standards than their comparison neighborhood schools. In addition, students attending the eight charter public high schools were more likely to graduate on time than those attending neighboring traditional public schools (75% v. 54%).

The New York Times recently wrote an article saying the Charter Schools are overhyped. Although “charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers,” the report, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, warned, “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well” as students in traditional schools. If President Obama's actions in DC are any guide, he is no friend of school vouchers. The NRO Online noted "he was quick to sign a bill last month [April 2009] that cancels a federally-funded D.C. school-voucher program after the 2009-2010 school year, unless Congress and the District government act to reauthorize it." This was despite earlier hints that he would tolerate the vouchers. Robert Gibbs said "the president doesn't believe that vouchers are a long-term answer to our educational problems and the challenges that face our public school system, where the vast majority of -- of students are educated in this country." But the unions are definitely a long-term feature, as this woman who found her children's access to DC vouchers canceled found.

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