By Allan Fluharty
A central tenant of education is to prepare students to participate in a democratic society. We want them to value a diversity of thought and culture, as well as a commitment to equity and justice. Unfortunately, I do not see equality and justice in public education in Illinois on several levels.
Families raising children in Chicago are faced with tough educational choices, decisions that have life-changing impact on their kids. One is to stay in the city or move to a suburban district with well-funded schools. There is a vast difference between city, suburban, and rural schools in Illinois, in funding and educational outcomes. Most families who can afford it move.
Funding public education in Illinois is based on property taxes, which has created a dysfunctional system that favors the students who are lucky enough to live in well-to-do communities. Public education in Illinois is not progressive; it does not provide an equal education for all of our citizens.
In the Chicago, there are also great differences between schools. Some families send their children to private or parochial schools; however, most parents don’t have the means to pay both for taxes and tuition. Many families live in areas of Chicago with fine CPS schools, but other families don’t. Over the last 25 years, public education in Chicago evolved into a potpourri of options with magnet, select enrollment and neighborhood schools, both at the elementary and high school levels. There are also numerous charter school operations, some large and politically connected—who operate semi-autonomous schools with public funding. The “best” schools—those with the most successful results and highest funding, are the magnet and certain charter schools. Competition to enter the best schools is intense, involving a combination of grades, standardized test scores, and a lottery. Parents with students in CPS hope their children will have the grades and the luck to get into a magnet or a good charter school.
Incredibly, the separation and categorization of students also occurs inside schools, where students are placed, or “tracked,” into regular, honors, AP, and IB classes. IB classes are particularly divisive, creating a “school within a school” that splits the student body and the faculty into separate cliques. An after effect of splitting out the best students is that “reluctant learners” are concentrated into lower level classes whose teachers must focus on social/emotional issues—such as tardiness, absent students, poor behaviors, and so on—at the expense of academic learning. It is typical that novice teachers are assigned to these challenging classes—teachers with the least experience handle the most challenging students.
Public schools in Illinois are divided by affluence, grades, behavior, and social-economic status. Perhaps the best gift a parent can give to their children is to live within the boundaries of well-off school districts. CPS separates children into neighborhood, select enrollment, magnet, and charter schools. Families pray that their children win the ‘educational lottery’ and get into the best schools. This separation continues with a vengeance within most schools through tracking and now school-within-school programs.
Enough is enough! Separating students based on class and ability is not done in public school systems of other industrialized nations as now practiced in the United States. More equitable systems in Europe, Asia, and North America—Finland, Singapore, and Canada, for example—are outpacing the U.S. by wide margins. Public education in the U.S. needs get back on track. It is time to put the “public” back into public education and introduce equity as a key provision.
Parents need to vote for politicians and policies that support the ideals of progressive education, in particular the ideal of educational equity.