By Paul Vallas
Chicago is in crisis as violence escalates and poverty spreads. By many measures Chicago is a city in decline.
And the most critical factor is the chronically underperforming and rapidly shrinking Chicago Public School system. Long dominated by the Chicago Teachers Union, it is the city’s socio-economic “Achilles’ Heel.”
And the sooner our political leaders admit this and muster the courage to do something about it, the faster the city will have a chance to address its chronic problems and reverse its decades-long decline.
I don’t come to this conclusion lightly. As many reading this know, I’ve spent my career as an educator, running the Chicago Public Schools and other large public systems. And I know how to read a budget. Maintaining the system in its current state does satisfy the political constituents and the special interests. But does it satisfy the needs of students, parents and the city?
It is obvious that now, that the system needs real change. And school choice—in which the funding is provided directly to parents to use in the school of their choice, whether public or private–is that change. It is long overdue. And the evidence leaves us no other option.
In Chicago, the public schools consume the majority of the city’s property taxes, 25% of all state K-12 funding and 40% of Illinois Federal K-12 funding, including federal COVID funds. This year CPS had a record $9.3 billion budget, an increase of 21% over the last two years, despite campuses being closed for almost 12 straight months and a loss of almost 25,000 students during the period.
For that massive investment of tax dollars, Chicago residents receive abysmal academic performance and a steady exodus of students from the public schools as families increasingly view public education in the city as woefully inadequate.
Think of this again. Let it sink in. Public school enrollment keeps declining, year after year, and yet the public is compelled to spend ever-increasing amounts. Throughout the state and much of the nation, local property taxes are guaranteed regardless of school district enrollment levels. Meanwhile, academic performance remains abysmal, leaving low-income and middle-class families trapped in an increasingly broken system.
Despite these dramatic increases in spending, three-fourths of CPS students still do not meet minimum Illinois standards in English Language Arts and Math. The SAT results paint the same picture, as just over a fourth of the CPS students meet the very low SAT standard set by the state.
Meanwhile, the CPS system is so unpopular that it has seen 18 straight years of declining enrollment, resulting in an enrollment drop of 110,000 students, or 25%. CPS enrollment has not been this low since the start of World War I, which was 107 years ago.
This lack of confidence in the public schools is also a primary driving force for the exodus of middle-class families from Chicago. A 2019 study by WBEZ, completed before the pandemic documents the massive exodus of Chicago’s middle-income residents who now constitute only 16% of the city’s population, as compared to 50% in 1970.
The percentage of middle-income residents today would be in the single digits if not for the city’s public employee residency requirement that affects over 80,000 public worker employees. It mandates that public employees working for the city, schools and other city-controlled agencies must live within city limits.
The greatest exodus has been Black residents, as an estimated 254,000 have left the city since the year 2000, the overwhelming majority from middle income families with school age children. This is the largest exodus of any American city, including Detroit.
Traditional public schools nationally are losing enrollment as COVID battered public school parents are increasingly demanding school choice.
The National Charter Alliance recent study entitled “Voting with Their Feet: A State-Level Analysis of Public Charter and District Public School Enrollment Trends” reports that traditional public-school enrollment dropped by 1.4 million students nationwide last year, while charter school enrollment increased by 240,000 students or 7%.
The increase in charter school enrollment was double the previous year’s increase and the largest since 2015. In addition, there are three-to-five million students nationwide languishing on charter school waiting lists. Similar increases in enrollment have been seen in private schools nationwide. The demand for school choice during the pandemic has resulted in at least 17 states enacted or expanded public funding for families who use school choice and send their children to private schools.
But not so in Illinois, where the Governor tried to kill the modest Tax Credit Scholarship program that provides tuition support to qualified families so they may escape poorly functioning public schools. This costs the state only a paltry $14 million and has a waiting list of 20,000 families. In Illinois even public school choice is limited, as new charter schools are effectively capped by the state and in Chicago. The CTU forced the district to limit even public charter school enrollment. This subjects low-income families to “Education Redlining” with school quality determined by a family’s zip code and income.
The system is unworkable, in part because it subjects low-income and overwhelmingly minority families to negative educational outcomes. It traps them in a broken system. It is morally indefensible. It is time to provide parents and the community real school choice. This means providing “Direct Funding” for parents to use at the school of their choice. It also means empowering the community to choose local school models that best suits their needs.
Despite the politically charged rhetoric from defenders of the failed status quo, private school tuition support doesn’t drain from traditional public schools. Under this version of choice, if a student opts to attend a private school, the state money designated for that student simply follows them to the school that educates them.
And taxpayers actually save money, because the direct funding amounts add up to far less than the overall taxpayer support required to educate a student who attends a district school. The Fordham Institute offers a deep dive into the impact of voucher programs and I’ve included a link here.
The mayor must aggressively pursue state authorization allowing CPS to provide direct funding to parents, to be used in the school of their choice. But the mayor doesn’t have to wait for the legislature to act. Chicago can enact its own direct funding program with City Council approval. The CPS budget is at a record $9.3 billion, and this doesn’t even include a billion dollars in uncommitted COVID money.
With that massive amount of spending, equivalent to $28,000 per student, there is little if any reason why the City Council can’t divert a portion of the $600 million in annual special city subsidies to provide support for school choice.
To hear a more complete, detailed examination of the way it can be done, please listen to the discussion on “The Dialogue” with Ted Dabrowski and Mark Glennon of Wirepoints.org
At the same time the mayor should advance community choice. Nationally, a growing number of urban school districts have empowered their local communities to demand that their failing schools be reconstituted using proven successful school models. Called Renaissance or Innovation Schools, often these failing schools that are turned over successful public charter school models with NO displacement of existing students.
These schools are independent schools that have been liberated from the district funding intercepts that divert too much money from local schools and their classrooms. The schools are also liberated from the many state and collective bargaining restrictions that undermine effective use of school time and resources. The schools are provided complete autonomy to select teachers, mandate continuous professional development and extend the school day and year.
Even in states like Indiana that have fully embraced school choice, making 90% of the families eligible for vouchers, the overwhelming majority of children continue to be educated in neighborhood public schools. Obstacles need to be removed to allow these schools to be transformed into effective education delivery systems. The Renaissance/ Innovation Schools provide a proven vehicle.
The “equal protection” clause in the Constitution requires all children living in the United States have the right to a free public education and are provided equal educational opportunity. It doesn’t mandate it be a government education. Teacher unions have chosen to wrongly interpret this mandate as requiring the exclusive public funding of public schools, while working overtime to deny parents educational choice and limit any community empowerment that threatens their monopoly.
For parents of school aged children across the nation, one thing is becoming clear: There is no choice but school choice.
Real school choice would allow local communities to select local models that best serve the community’s needs. It would allow families to send their public dollars to the school they want their child to attend.
It just might reverse the exodus of Chicago’s middle class, and end education redlining that too often dooms low-income children and their families to schools where quality is determined by income and zip code.
And it would give parents and their children what’s truly needed in every community on the first day of school:
A real sense of hope.
Paul Vallas is the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and a former candidate for mayor of Chicago.