Public schools: Not our children’s keepers

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Chicago teachers’ strike is serving to highlight problems faced by public school systems throughout our country. The teachers do not want to be held accountable for their students’ academic achievements or lack thereof; Chicago’s education reformers are demanding more teacher accountability and longer school days; and parents are fed up with having to find childcare for their children while the teachers are striking. For some reason, a lot of media attention has focused on the last group—parents—and the sob stories about their struggles to find care for their kids. As I tuned in to CNN a couple mornings ago, one Chicago parent was complaining about the money he was having to cough up to pay for childcare and another parent was worried about her child’s safety due to not being in school.

While many of us have known public schools provide “babysitting and warehousing” (a phrase used by the Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, to explain why she’s against longer school days), it’s still a bit of a shock whenever people are explicit about why the school strike is frustrating them. For the parents being interviewed, the more fundamental issues, such as Chicago’s abysmal graduation data or the return on investments in Chicago teachers (who are making $86,000 per year on average), take a backseat to their apparent main concern: childcare for their kids.

Public schools in America have turned into one-stop shops for all the things parents or private service providers could and should be handling. In most school districts, for example, transportation to school is guaranteed through public busing. Hot meals—often breakfast and lunch—are provided by many schools; a central concern about snow days when I lived in Washington, D.C., was that they resulted in public school kids not eating well. And “free” after-school programs help parents carry on with work or other activities until they’re ready to deal with their children.

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None of these programs are actually free, of course. But, when public schools internalize them, which is what has happened in Chicago and thousands of other school systems across the U.S., people come to expect them. When the programs are then cut—even for a few days in the case of a strike or a snowstorm—people are outraged. The programs, as we have seen, create an entitlement mindset; they lead to “mission creep” when it comes to what public education should be doing; and they shift the conversation away from deep issues, such as “What is a good education for my child, and how can the system promote quality?” to a focus on issues that have nothing to do with education, like “When is the strike going to get settled so I can stop paying for childcare?”

Resolving the strike in Chicago should, first and foremost, be about doing long-term good for the children of that city. All options, including more innovative solutions like voucher programs, charter schools, and privatization of failing schools, should be put on the table by reformers. Considerations about kids being left on the Chicago streets and parents paying unwanted childcare bills should not be driving compromise, since the care and safety of children is ultimately the responsibility of their parents; the focus of the teachers and administrators of the school system should be instituting reforms that lead to improvements in the education they provide for kids.

Public education in America is in crisis, and the strike in Chicago is the latest example of the mess we have made of our schools. The crisis won’t be solved through pragmatism, patches, and parents focused more on “free lunches” than the fundamental flaws in our education system. The strike is—or should be—about a lot more than unionized teachers getting a good deal or administrators getting a bit more accountability from their employees. Ending this strike should be about our kids and their future, so all parties involved—teachers, administrators, politicians, parents, and the media—should turn their discussions away from tangential issues, such as how parents will afford childcare during the strike, and toward the tough question of how to fix a failing system.


Scott Beaulier is Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.