by Mary Shesgreen
Below is a slightly edited version of my guest editorial that appeared in the Elgin Daily Herald on July 4th . I thank the Herald for publishing it.
I oppose charter schools because they address the wrong problem. The real cause of academic failure is not, as charter proponents contend, bad teachers, teachers’ unions and bureaucratic school systems. The real cause is poverty. Charter schools not only do not solve poverty; they create a major distraction from that simple fact.
Critics of our public school system like to point to Finland and use the fact that it has the highest academic scores of any country to shame our system. But how does Finland succeed so well? They not only have highly paid, highly respected, 100% unionized teachers. They have minimal poverty. Their system generates economic equality and security. Presto: high academic achievement.
At the June 23rd U-46 public hearing about the proposal by Elgin Charter School Initiative (ECSI) to open an elementary charter school, I listened to the earnest, dedicated members of the ECSI design team as they described their proposal. It was clear that their motivation was a passionate desire to help “at risk” students succeed academically. And I listened to the earnest, dedicated members of the school board challenge the proposal on the grounds that diverting funds from U-46 would undermine their own genuine efforts to help “at risk” students. Both groups are all-volunteer, high-minded, and credible.
But they were fighting over crumbs. Illinois funds its schools at one of the lowest rates in the nation. Because most of school funding comes from property taxes, low-income communities have poorer schools. Furthermore, the federal government has largely abandoned any commitment to funding public education.
Parents living in poverty have two or three part time jobs. Such families live with extreme stress. Parents do not have time to focus on helping their children with homework or attending PTO meetings. Such families may also be sinking deeply in debt to predatory lenders, or face foreclosure. That stress accumulates in neighborhood and generates multiple social problems.
Poverty also impacts the “image” of a school and a community. At the school board hearing, several people reported that parents don’t want their kids going to U-46 schools. I believe that these attitudes are about real or perceived low academic performance in many Elgin schools. It is also about real poverty in some of our neighborhoods.
If we really want to help “at risk” children, if we want better schools, we must seriously address poverty. That means we must reverse major government policy trends of the past 30+ years. This includes the following: reversing the race to the bottom written into our trade pacts; demanding living wages for all workers ($10.10 is still a poverty wage.); fully restoring collective bargaining rights; insisting that large corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of taxes and that government bodies at the federal, state and local levels fully fund education so that every school is of the caliber of New Trier. And we must end austerity programs and fully fund social needs.
The billionaires who back charter schools- The Gates Foundation, The Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation etc.- have the opposite agenda. They resist any acknowledgement of poverty as a cause. They call it “making excuses” for bad teachers. Instead they make “charitable” donations to charter schools, They also pour philanthropic dollars into intense and effective lobbying by their front groups, like Stand for Children, which advocate to impose the business model on education, as if that’s what’s lacking. When their reforms fail, even when they do serious damage to school systems and to communities, as in Chicago, they inexplicablyincrease the pressure to expand those policies.
I encourage U-46 to oppose to the charter proposal and to take the best aspects of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum and incorporate them in all U-46 schools.