I’ll Tell You What Parents Resist: Low-Performing Schools

The Walton Foundation won’t be funding charter work in Chicago any time soon. That news came to charter school and school quality advocates as an undeniable setback for a movement that has engaged thousands of parents and provided access to college and careers for multiplied thousands of students in Chicago. But it also seemed to set anti-charter advocates like Diane Ravitch off on a woefully premature victory lap. “It shows that resistance works” Ravitch declared when asked about her thoughts on Walton’s decision to stop funding charter work in the city. “There’s very active resistance (in Chicago), not just from the union, but from parents on the ground”.

Hold the phone.

As a parent, a church leader and an advocate for equal access to high quality education, I certainly wish that Walton would stick with the parents in Chicago even in difficult time. But, I am aware that while sticking it out would be the morally right thing to do, it might not be the most pragmatic course of action. I do, however, have to call out this ridiculous assertion of massive parent “resistance”.

I know that the Chicago Teachers Union has become a public relations juggernaut that dominates media headlines with mass rallies, strikes threats, and even a strike run-through. I know that the union has supported and coordinated with community organizations to drum up support for their anti-charter and anti-reform rhetoric putting a “community face” on things. I’m even aware that the CTU has successfully made a beleaguered mayor and an irresponsible governor the public face of charters in Chicago, overshadowing the tens of thousands of parents who choose charter schools everyday. But, neither Diane Ravitch nor the Walton Foundation should misconstrue any of this as parent resistance.

Let me tell you about the parent resistance that is taking place with parents on the ground.

I first realized the resistance on those cold January mornings when I used to help run the annual New Schools EXPO, an information and enrollment fair for charter schools in Chicago. I wish that Ravitch could have seen the hundreds of parents who stood out in the frigid winter air an hour before the doors opened, hoping to gain access to a meaningful opportunity for their child. I wish that she could have spent the day with me walking the floor and chatting with a few of the more than 5,000 parents who came through over the course of the day. You’d never catch these folks at a rally (for or against charter schools). But, each of them was part of the resistance. They were taking matters into their own hands and scrapping to find something that the public school system in Chicago had not provided, a quality education for their children.

It became clear to me that this resistance was not just a charter school phenomenon when I worked with Parent Power Chicago to organize the first ever Chicago School Fair, a school options fair featuring all of Chicago’s school choices- traditional public schools, public charter schools, selective enrollment, Catholic, independent and even home school resources. More than 20,000 parents and students flooded McCormick Place. The resistance overwhelmed the space and the materials we had prepared for the day. Parents were pushing back against the notion that they should sit and wait for their assigned school to be great. They wanted a quality school right now.

The resistance showed up again on NPR when the public news station reported on the fastest growing school option in America, homeschool. The insightful report highlighted something that I know from experience: the majority of the growth in homeschooling is among middle class, urban African Americans. Today’s home homeschooler is not the rural-white Bible thumping family afraid of what school might do to their children. We are educated, determined Black parents deeply concerned about the cultural self-respect, family values, and quality instruction that the public school up the street is almost certain not to provide.

Indeed there is a mass parent resistance in Chicago. But, it isn’t against charter schools. What you see in Chicago is an unprecedented, yet unmistakable resistance against chronic school underperformance. A recently released report shows that parents are refusing to send their children to underperforming schools. And despite what you hear from the anti-charter crowd, traditional public schools, not charters, are the greatest beneficiaries in terms of student enrollment and the public resources that go with it. In Chicago, 70% of students zoned to a Level 1+ neighborhood school (the highest standard on our quality rating) attend that neighborhood school, while the families of over 80% of the students zoned to Level 3 schools (the lowest mark a school can receive) look for other options. And here’s the kicker for the “charter schools are stealing our kids crowd”: only 29% of the students who opt-out of their zoned school go to charters. Almost 40% chose another neighborhood boundary school and the others go to citywide public schools or leave the system altogether.

The Walton Foundation is pulling funding for now because the tense political situation in Chicago has made charter expansion more difficult. That decision is regrettable, but understandable. But, both the Walton Foundation and Diane Ravitch should know that what has created this tension is a made-for-TV movement that has successfully conflated several legitimate issues of social justice with the approval of an overly generous union contract and the abolition of a charter school sector that has contributed much to communities and to the lives of students in Chicago. All the while, there is real resistance happening among parents on the ground. It doesn’t create headlines or media events, but it is creating change in Chicago.

The cat is out of the bag: parents know that there are ways to find great schools for their children. And neither the loss of Walton funding or misinformed comments from an anti-reform advocate can stop the resistance now.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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