How do we fix the Chicago public schools? Are charter schools part of the solution or part of the problem? Why have the schools failed the students, or is it a matter of us failing the schools?

Those hefty topics were the focus of a Chicago Tribune panel discussion Wednesday that brought together representatives of four distinct perspectives on the state of public education and public school choice in Chicago. At first glance, the panelists might have been viewed as composing a four-way tug-of-war on the topic, each bringing a distinct viewpoint often at odds with those of other panelists.

The four panelists were Jitu Brown, national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance; Cinda Klickna, president of the Illinois Education Association (IEA); Dr. Beth Purvis, a leader of Chicago International Charter School (CICS); and Tim King, founder and CEO of Urban Prep Acadamies.

“I maintain that across the country and in Chicago we have a failing public school system, not failing public schools,” Brown said.

In Chicago the problem of school choice is cyclical. Charter schools were formed to give disadvantaged students a better opportunity at getting accepted into and then graduating from college. But critics of charters say in the process charter schools also have destroyed neighborhood public schools by siphoning off the best students, leaving the schools to struggle to meet achievement standards. By attempting to solve one problem and get more students prepared for college, they say charter schools have adversely affected other public school students.

Yet even Brown, who is a proponent for neighborhood public schools, is not entirely against charter schools.

“We are not against charter schools in principal,” Brown said. “There are things we can learn from charters that can aid neighborhood schools. But charters aren’t the silver bullet. The intention of public education is that every child has the chance for world-class education in their neighborhood…some charters destabilize the neighborhood school.”

Klickna agreed, and dismissed the notion that there is any single cure to what ails public education: “(W)e believe there is no silver bullet.”

Even Purvis, a charter school proponent, acknowledged that the notion of charters as a cure-all not accurate.

“Charters aren’t silver bullets,” Purvis said, “but they are part of the solution. The charter system is trying to create high quality choices for parents where there aren’t any.”

Klickna, speaking on behalf of the state’s largest teachers union, said it was a myth that the organization is opposed to charter schools.  However, she said the IEA has questions about the “high quality choices for parents” Purvis had mentioned.

“What is really being told to parents as a choice? Is it a real choice [for them]?” Klickna said.

For King’s Urban Prep schools, what is being touted to parents is the 100 percent college admittance rate for graduating seniors. But Brown says that number doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Over 59 percent of men who enter Urban Prep don’t graduate,” Brown said. “Are we running schools like portfolios that just look good at year’s end? What about the lives ruined in that process?”

King defended Urban Prep, a network charter schools for African American boys. While he admitted a higher percentage of students were expelled from Urban Prep than from Chicago public schools, there’s a lot more going on than just the numbers.

“The misconception is charter schools expel students willy-nilly,” King said. “The students [at Urban Prep] who were expelled were only expelled after we did everything we could to get the situation solved. Expulsion numbers look good at public schools but the suspension and dropout rates are high.”

While the panelists argued over the merits of charter schools and whether they were beneficial or not, all agreed that public education as a whole faces huge challenges.

“There are a lot of challenges facing the system that aren’t the result of public schools or charter schools,” King said. “The system does have problems.”

Part of the issue is some urban schools in non-affluent areas, generally populated by African-Americans, lack resources and facilities available to schools in more prosperous neighborhoods, Brown said. This problem is especially prominent in Chicago, where economic disparity has becoming a defining characteristic.

Chicago Public Schools’ closure last year of a record 50 schools, mostly in poor neighborhoods, became a flashpoint for that argument.

“In Chicago and in urban areas across the country, equity is a major issue,” Brown said. “And closing schools does not improve the neighborhood.”

In Illinois, the charter-vs.-neighborhood schools debate is set against the backdrop of shaky state finances that have strained local school districts. The pension crisis and a pension reform bill passed in December also made many teachers – whose benefits would be reduced if the law survives a court challenge – feel they were unjustly vilified.

“The most important thing is getting economic reform in the state,” Purvis said.

Klickna and Brown defended the teachers who are part of the fight over the pension reform law in Illinois. Brown said public officials failed and are now blaming the “greedy teacher.” Klickna agreed.

“Teachers aren’t to be blamed,” she said. “Public officials need to be held accountable.”

With schools in Chicago relying on Illinois’ economic recovery, what’s preventing that from happening?

NEXT ARTICLE What’s preventing Illinois’ economic recovery?

  1. Mapping it out: States with the highest and lowest unemployment in April 2014
  2. Think Illinois unemployment is bad now? Be glad it’s not 1983.
  3. Taxpayers in Illinois want it all: reduced taxes, enhanced services and budget cuts. That’s not a formula that works.
  4. Concerned about your state income tax? Use our Sound Off tool to tell your representatives in Springfield what you think. It’s easy and effective. Try it.
  5. The Civic Federation noted in this 2014 report that pension reform alone will not repair the state’s broken finances.