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May. 6 2010 - 10:30 am | 333 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

Illinois legislature dooms thousands of poor children to an inferior education

I was hopping mad this morning when I learned that the Illinois House defeated a measure that would allow 30,000 Chicago public school children to attend better schools with vouchers.

I’m a liberal, and I know liberals are supposed to be against school vouchers, but I’m against the foolish, stick-in-the-mud thinking that keeps low-income kids in rotten schools.

The measure was struck down by opposition from teacher’s unions. No surprise there. They say vouchers would destroy public education.

“We are attempting to destroy public education for some children. And when we do that, we deny all of them an opportunity to be the best they can be,” says Representative Monique Davis, according to the Sun Times. She voted against the plan.

You know what I say? If something isn’t working, it deserves to be destroyed.

I’m not talking about public education in general. I think public education can work, even in struggling communities. But schools that consistently fail kids – whether its because they have lousy teacher or because they’re not given enough resources by the city and the state – they should close because they’re ruining children every day of the week.

This program would have let kids who go to the worst, most over-crowded and under-resourced schools have a chance to get a decent education. Would it have meant teachers losing their jobs? You bet, it would. Would it have meant emptying out schools that don’t do their job? Yes indeed.

I feel sorry for anyone who loses their job. That sucks. But you know what’s worse? Generations of kids unable to write, read, spell and do basic math.

I volunteer with kids down in Altgeld Gardens, who tell me about their education. They go to schools where there’s 40 kids in a classroom. Where there’s not enough toilet paper for each student, much less writing paper. And it shows. I love these kids, but many of them can barely write a sentence, and they’re 11 and 12 years old. That’s failure.

These kids don’t deserve to be sacrificed on the altar of somebody’s job or the hope that one day, the adults that run the school system will get their poop in a group and create excellent schools.

A review of voucher programs across the U.S. shows that kids who use vouchers to attend better schools do better over the long run. Is it an instant cure? No. They take a few years, sometimes, to gain ground. But then again, they’ve been poorly educated for years. Even a good education isn’t a magic wand.

I don’t think vouchers are a long term solution. Should every neighborhood school be excellent? Absolutely. Without question. I even think CPS’ magnet program, which creates better schools that often become off-limits to neighborhood kids, is ridiculous. But, in the short term, if it means some kids get to go to a decent school, than let’s do it.

I’d like to know if the public officials who defeated this measure have kids that go to failing public schools. I would imagine they don’t. I would imagine their kids read, write and do math at grade level. I would imagine their kids aren’t deciding daily between the chance to go to school and the chance to be hit by a stray bullet on the way there.

It’s easy to give into pressure from interest groups when it’s somebody else’s kids at stake. The one question we need to be asking her – both of the voucher program and the current state of these under-performing schools – is this: Does it work?

If the answer is that the current schools aren’t working and vouchers might work better, let’s give it a try. Because if doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, then putting these kids back in schools that are failing is the epitomy of deranged.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’ll never understand this thinking that a few good schools is bad for all kids- they need to worry about raising all school standards to what charter schools are doing, not begrudge their success.

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    It’s actually the teacher unions which are fighting vouchers…..they have their union thugs and lobbyists buy of these legislatures

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    As a parent, I wish it were as easy as “charter good” and “bad public schools and teachers unions bad.” That would be a simple choice to make. We left a state last summer in part because the state actively defunded public schools to fund charter schools (which at least one person in the state legislature had a financial interest in). Their class sizes went from 20-23 to 35 for middle school, which is unacceptable.

    The problem I see is that the same privatizing and “free markets must be free” attitude that gave us all sorts of bad things in the past 3-5 decades is now working at public education specifically and the middle class in general. Union jobs are among the last living wage jobs left in this country.

    While unions are not perfect, the presence of a union in a workplace enforces what is otherwise not so obvious: the interests of people doing the work can be at odds with the interests of management and investors in the business. Without equality between these three interests, workers tend to get the shaft in some form of lower wages, work rules, and seniority. Management and investors, meanwhile, always take care of themselves (which is natural). If we want an egalitarian country, we must support any source of living wage jobs. Unions are the most obvious and direct way to get there. Letting private interests bust unions, whatever their reasons, hurts all of us, not just the people who hold jobs. Especially when they’re replaced with low-paid labor, for example, Teach for America, or a job is sent offshore.

    My point is to separate what to do about bad schools from the issue of unions and living wages. If private foundations and private companies selling education solutions also promoted unions, to maintain that part of the status quo, it would be easier to focus on the real problem: how do you teach kids who live in places where education is difficult if not impossible? But these private interests have no interest in unions for their employees. It impinges on their profits and expenses. These private interests, therefore, don’t really care about the larger community, about the ability for people who live in a particular place to afford to have kids, have a car, have two weeks vacation each year, and send their kids to college. That used to be the American Dream. At the least, it’s not that much to ask that our lives be that simple in ambition. Most of us don’t want to be doctors or lawyers or Wall Street titans. And we should not have to have those jobs to lead a simple decent life.

    I don’t know how to fix poor-performing schools. But busting one of the last unions, the last few sources of a living wage for people, that seems to be a big part of the agenda of private foundations and charter schools. Call me skeptical that they’ll do anything more than line their pockets, put a lot of teachers into jobs where they do the same work for less pay, and end up with the same middling results for the kids. Once down that road, we cannot go back.

    I’d also be skeptical of data that shows testing yields a better education for kids. Or that charter schools perform better (or worse) than public schools. From what I can tell, schools only succeed when the parents are active and the principal and teachers work to create a dynamic learning environment that is both challenging and fun for the kids and the adults. In the schools you mention, my guess is the home lives of your kids are disrupted somehow and that the adults in their lives have as much or more to worry about than their education. And it’s likely the school community, the principals and teachers, need to improve. But letting private interests, with little or no feedback from parents and people who live in the community (think voting for public school budgets), to me that’s letting the fox run the henhouse. My hunch is that if you got higher wages and training for the parents of these poorly educated kids, that would do as much or more to improve the education of the kids.

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      The teachers unions are involved in more than they should be, I wonder if you have thought of that. They set political agendas, indoctrinate children to all sorts of sinful and bad things, constantly seek to control content and the meaning of education, and lets face it, if they think that what they are doing is work, huh, I’ll give then a union job where they WILL know what work really is. Don’t look for the teachers union to better anything, but more days off, while the rest of the world is in school 12 months a year.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I can’t speak to the management of the teachers unions, but I can say, from first hand experience as a parent working in the classroom from K-5 and engaging teachers in 6-8, that none of them are slackers. One was burnt out. And one was new to teaching. But all of them performed at a minimal or better level. Out of 15-18 teachers in CT, NY, and AZ. Indeed, until budget cuts, the AZ public school teachers were equal or better than their CT counterparts, despite the latter state having the better reputation.

        My point is to be skeptical of simplistic rhetoric, in any debate. In this case, it’s that the problems are the fault of teachers unions. Maybe. But probably not. Indeed, from experience, if the spotlight is on one group, I immediately ask myself, “who benefits?” In the case of education, it’s equally the private interests and like-minded politicians who push alternatives to public schools that are often worse (because they’re not as transparent and cost-effective).

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Hey Tim – Thanks for both of your great comment. Sorry I am just getting around to responding now.

          I definitely think that most teachers are heroes. They care so much for their students, work tirelessly and for not much pay.

          However, although I don’t know about Connecticut, New York and Arizona, I can tell you about my experience here in Chicago. I work right now in the Chicago Public Schools, and I have seen lousy lousy teachers who deserve to be fired. I don’t think they’re the majority, but I know they’re not that rare either. Maybe it’s the difference between our school systems in different states and cities, but here in Chicago, I think desperate times call for desperate measures.

          I think in this case, asking “who benefits?” leads me to a different answer. A lot of not so great teacher benefit by keeping a job where they’re just phoning it in, and even more students get terrible instruction and no chance at a decent future. I don’t think privitization is the answer, especially not everywhere, but I think it could at least help get people here moving toward education reform.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I am both a teacher (7th grade language arts) and a parent of three teenagers. My school is low income and a great mix of students. I don’t think anybody teaches for the money; it’s too much of a headache to deal with 12 year olds. But I agree that there are many tenured teachers who just aren’t doing their jobs and need to be transferred, retired, or just plain fired. The only way that will happen is if parents get involved and in low income schools, parents are not involved. Many of them don’t even speak English. Administration and teacher unions make it difficult to stand up against wrongdoing (especially with the massive layoffs!) and as a non-tenured teacher, I wouldn’t want to fight the bureaucracy.
    If teachers are held to the same standards as those in “regular” jobs – meaning there is no tenure and they are “graded” on performance, perhaps our educators will get a bit more competitive. Usually the most competitive teams win and the teams who are mediocre just exist. It’s almost too massive of a problem to fix.
    As a second career teacher (20 years in corporate America), my goal is to help open students’ minds to the wonder of literature and how a good writer will go farther in life than a bad one. And with a son who has profound dyslexia, I have found that NOTHING can impede imagination except oneself. Thanks for listening.

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    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

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