It’s Saturday afternoon, I’m cleaning my kitchen, and the teacher’s union leader is knocking on my door.
He’s running for a county board seat. He seems like a nice guy, and I know firsthand how hard it is to do door-to-door canvassing for a local election. So I shush the barking dog and step outside on my front step to listen to him make his pitch for my vote.
He lives in the community right next to mine and used to teach in Chicago Public Schools. He wants to talk about education, a subject near and dear to my heart, but one that has little to do with the election post for which he is running.
Then he starts railing about how he’s prepared to fight against “for-profit education corporations” and I realize this campaign is really about spreading the anti-charter message, because our county has nothing to do with running schools or granting charter licenses.
There are 130 charter schools in Chicago–enrolling about 58,000 students, or about 15 percent of the population of Chicago Public Schools—and all of them are run by nonprofit boards. It is indeed true that a handful of these schools—about 7 percent of them—are indeed managed by for-profit companies, but to equate charter schools with “for-profit education corporations” is just flat out disingenuous.
When I asked him if he was against all charter schools, he hedged. He said he didn’t want to close any, because he doesn’t believe in closing schools. Why is that, I asked? Because he used to teach in a Chicago school that was closed for under-enrollment.
He’s against charters because he said they aren’t “transparent” about their results or finances, and they push out students who lag academically or struggle with behavior issues—all sweeping generalizations aimed at galvanizing opposition among people who have never stepped foot in a successful charter or lived in a neighborhood where there are no good school options.
In short, communities like mine, where there are no charters and no realistic plans to create one.
I consider myself pretty clear-eyed about charters. My daughter teaches in a charter school, and as a journalist I’ve spent time in excellent charter schools that transformed educational outcomes for children in Chicago’s most underserved “school deserts.”
I’ve also researched bad actors in this sector, schools that misuse public funds and fail to give students the education they deserve. But there are plenty of traditional schools guilty of the same failings, and I don’t see any progressive politicians out there campaigning against them.
So I had to wonder: Why was this candidate so focused on denigrating charters in my charter-free suburb, especially when he’s running for a role that has zero control over school systems?
Why isn’t he talking to me about criminal-justice reform or health-care funding—issues he will be able to influence should he win a county board seat?
Maybe it’s just too tempting to pander to progressive fears about school choice, especially in a community where it’s safe to assume residents don’t know enough about charters to challenge a genial candidate with teacher bona fides.
That teacher candidate could have had my vote. But he decided to pander to fear and spread misinformation, instead of sharing his views on challenges he can genuinely tackle on the county board.