Reuters

With traditional public schools out of session, will parents make the switch?

In Chicago, one out of every eight public school students attend charter schools. That means 52,000 public charter school students in Chicago have had class this week, while 350,000 others have been out of the classroom since the city’s first teachers strike in 25 years began Monday.

One major difference between the city's traditional Chicago Public Schools and public charter schools is that CPS teachers are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union. Most of Chicago’s charter teachers are not unionized. That very fact makes charter school officials and proponents see the strike as an opportunity, though most won't use that word. So far, picketing teachers clad in red t-shirts have been met with honks from cars in every corner of the city. But if the strike, which centers on job security and plans to evaluate teachers based on student performance, keeps students out of school for much longer, there's a distinct possibility that sympathy could erode and push more interest into the charter movement. 

Chicago teachers hold placards as they walk the picket line outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

"In a city with complex problems that Chicago has, I’m just concerned as a citizen that we have children who aren't in a school," says Elizabeth Purvis, CEO of the Chicago International Charter Schools, the city’s largest charter network. "This doesn't mean that there is no merit to the teachers’ arguments, but I hope what this does for charter schools is allow people to find out what charter schools are and what they are not."

Parent support for the strike has been decidedly mixed. “I understand their position and I support these teachers, but I want my kids in school,” says Luisa Serna, a parent of two CPS students. "I don’t know what I’d do if this goes on for a long time."

Purvis and other charter school operators say they've seen increased parent interest since the strike. Students are usually accepted to these schools via lottery the previous year while many others are placed on waiting lists. Strike-induced phone calls from parents are unlikely to yield results.

The growth of charter schools in Chicago mirrors the same trend in other urban centers. Enrollment in nearly half of America's large school districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, has been decreasing since 2005, according to analysis from the New York Times. Meanwhile, the number of charter schools has exploded, with charter school enrollment in highly urban areas up by nearly 15 percent annually between 1999 and 2007.

That’s not to say charter growth hasn’t been bumpy. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the largest charter school enrollment nationally and is the second-largest overall, is considering tightened measures against charter schools after many have had issues with finances, cheating, and student performance.

Student performance in Chicago’s charter schools, as with its traditional public schools, run the gamut from extremely poor to wildly successful. Despite the variations, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has embraced charters as part of the solution to the city’s education woes. Plans are in the works to open 60 new charter schools by 2017 in a city with nearly 10,000 students on waiting lists for 110 existing charters. The schools offer a variety of takes on education from providing most classes online to teaching soccer skills alongside math and reading.

The argument for more charter schools is simple, according to supporters. "The charter idea is the idea that we need to move away from the one-size-fits-all educational approach in the past," says Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "Nationally, what this strike might say to school system leaders and city leaders across the country is that an alternative education system is necessary."

But that alternative education system doesn’t necessarily have to be devoid of teacher voices in decision-making. Unions have, in fact, made inroads in charter schools, where teachers have traditionally had lower pay and less job security than their traditional counterparts. There are 14 charter schools in Chicago that have become unionized in the past four years. The charter union issued a statement of solidarity with the CTU, saying what happens citywide could filter down into negotiations at their own schools.

Unions, charter schools and a large public school district are not incompatible, says Brian Harris, a charter high school teacher and president of the city’s charter teachers union. *"Charter schools should serve as limited experiments in education," Harris says. "The best results should be imported into all schools."

But while some charter proponents say the biggest virtue in charter schools is their flexibility to innovate, others focus on the idea that it provides another alternative to neighborhood schools. A citywide strike deprives parents of a choice of where to send their children to school and broader investment in charter options could help remedy that, says Juan Rangel, president of Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization Charter Schools.

"One thing that the strike will do is that it will paint a stark difference for parents why some public schools are open and some are not," Rangel says. "It's an opportunity for what we want public education to mean. Parents will wise up and realize that they don't have as many options as they think they have."

Photo credit: Jeff Haynes/Reuters

*The above quote from Brian Harris has been edited for clarity since it was first published.

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