Chicago School Strike: School Choice and a Voucher System Would Solve the Problem

Starting on Monday, teachers in the City of Chicago will go on strike after contract negotiations failed to secure a suitable resolution between the union and Chicago Public Schools. Undoubtedly, a good portion of any coverage will discuss pay raises, benefits, and the collectively bargained contracts that cover all CPS teachers. Unfortunately, much of the discussion will not focus on why these contracts and the structure of the school district is bad to begin with.

Illinois's education structure is poor to begin with. Over 800 school districts cover the state.  Some districts cover high schools only, and their counterparts govern elementary and middle schools. Some consolidate and govern all schools in their respective districts. This has led to a variance of about $19,000 between "rich" and "poor" school districts. The other part is Illinois's extremely favorable labor laws to unions. Pensions for Illinois teachers are extremely beneficial, and in many instances, offer teachers a guaranteed pension which they contribute little of their salary to. While not entirely attributable to teachers alone, Illinois still has the largest gap in pension liabilities and funding in the nation. Worse, the state constitution guarantees all pensions for public employees, which doesn't necessarily guarantee a sound system.

Again, this says nothing about one of the real fundamental problems with Illinois education - the lack of real school choice for parents and educators. Illinois's charter school law does not allow more than 120 such schools statewide, and limits the number of charter schools in any district to just one. Moreover, property taxes in Illinois virtually prevent the opportunity for low and middle-income families from choosing other private school options.  In other words, public schooling in traditional brick-and-mortar settings is virtually the only option that Illinois parents have. As a result, their choices are limited, regardless if their child benefits from the environment or not.

Educators also don't have much choice. Illinois allows unions to collectively bargain contracts, and if someone objects to being a member of the union, they can be required to pay a "fair share" for union activities related to collective bargaining. Furthermore, there is an entire law established for the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board bureacracy which handles issues of collective bargaining and such. It is notoriously hard to fire bad teachers, and the standardized testing of students offers little opportunity for new or innovative teachers to try something different.

States need to take a signifant step back away from the heavy-handed role in public education that exists now. Ideally, a complete privatization of public education should be the goal. However, knowing that this ideal is unlikely, further steps need to be taken to remove the power of administrators and unions to dictate educational policy. The two easiest ways are to eliminate standardized testing and implement a complete voucher system where parents can use their education dollars in any education setting. Both students and teachers stand to benefit.

Students stand to benefit as their educational choice can reflect learning capabilities, family values, and professional career goals. What works for one student may not work for another. Standardized testing treats all students the same, regardless of these often subtle, but very profound, differences in their character and capability. Vouchers will offer a reasonable way to find the environment that works best to educate and evaluate their progress.

Teachers stand to benefit as they, too, can find the educational environment best suited to their needs. Like students, no teacher is the same, so demanding the adherance to standarized systems of testing offers little incentive to take risks and innovate in the classroom. Furthermore, quality teachers are often given lower pay for harder work, and removing the politicized pay scales that come from district-union contracts will help to pay them what they are worth. Vouchers will follow good teachers to good schools.

The dispute between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teacers Union highlights the significant problem with American education today. The top-down, monolithic approach to education focuses too much on money and contractual guarantees for job security, and significantly diminishes any opportunity for experimentation and innovation. Students suffer. Teachers suffer. It's a lose-lose situation.