Are District Schools Entitled to Teach Other People’s Children?

On April 1, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers walked out on their jobs six weeks ahead of the official date by which they could call a strike. Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis said she didn’t know or care if the strike was legal. She shrugged and said, “ Sue me.” CPS is, in fact, suing CTU for the one-day strike and asking the court to make the union pay back the amount that it cost the district to enact a 250-site contingency plan. But let’s push aside the political wrangling and pose a fundamental question about public education itself: Are district schools entitled to educate everybody else’s children? In my dreams, I’d be the Rosa Parks of the education reform movement. I’m tired of my people having to sit at the back of the bus bound for college and careers. Much like the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, I’d lead parents in a massive walkout against the Chicago school district. Instead of carpooling to get protesters to and from work, my parents would “school pool,” enlisting the most trusted adults among us to run schools in living rooms across the city until CPS and CTU got their act together. A school district/teachers union with only half of its students would fall, just like the Montgomery public transportation system did with only white passengers. The vitriol between CPS and CTU would cease; they would collaborate to demand that the state fill the district’s $480 million budget gap and change the funding formula going forward; and the two entities would emerge laser focused on meeting the needs of children so that enrollment numbers could rise again. I know my fantasy strike would be impossible to execute in a district where 86 percent of students live in poverty. However, the illustration serves to prove that just because our tax dollars fund district schools doesn’t mean these schools are entitled to unlimited access to kids.  

Riding on Moral Ground

This is why I found the CTU one-day strike so arrogant and offensive. CTU arbitrarily blocked kids from having access to what they are indeed entitled to—an education. The timing was bad. CTU called a strike just because it wanted to, not because the union had exhausted its collective bargaining options. This move was indifferent to the rule of law that governs labor relations, and CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey claimed that union leadership did so because they are operating on higher, moral authority. But how moral was it for teachers to walk out on kids for a day when they may hold an open-ended strike six weeks later? I get the “collateral damage” argument—that in a battle some innocence must be lost in order to win the war—but that’s a lever I’d only pull if I had absolutely no other defense. I find it hard to believe a preemptive one-day strike to give the district a taste of the union’s political power was morally motivated. Everyone agrees that CTU can legally strike in mid-May after the fact-finding or “cooling off” period of contract negotiations has run its course. But instead of taking a breather, the CTU added coals to the fire by blocking education access and telling parents left to shamble for childcare to consider it “ like an extra holiday.” The comment reeked of entitlement, and 20 percent of union membership voted against the so-called “Day of Action.”

Opting Out of Public School Entitlement

The white, religious homeschooling community rebelled against public school entitlement a long time ago. Recently, NPR ran a story about how black, middle-class, urban families are opting to homeschool their children, as well. According to the report, black parents are homeschooling not for religious reasons, but to avoid the racism of largely white school staff. I know two African-American families and a cousin who opted out of public schools simply because they refused to subject themselves to a dysfunctional, underperforming public school system that tries to exert a monopoly on free access to education. When the quality of my own children’s education—in both district and charter schools—has been subpar, I have seriously considered homeschooling, too. (We must remember that charter schools are a free alternative, but private and parochial schools are also school choice options that affluent families take advantage of with little to no union pushback.) When us public school teachers feel we are God’s gift to other people’s children, then we become what’s wrong with public education. When the fight for our rights trumps the needs of our students, it all goes downhill from there. Of course, teachers need to get paid adequately and school funding is worth fighting for, but trying to force a limit on charter schools through union negotiations and striking, for example, reinforces the entitlement mentality that’s driving parents away from district schools. The chief purpose of schools is to provide quality education to children, not to secure jobs and political power for adults.

Power to the Parent

Be it district, charter, private, parochial or home school, parents are the only people entitled to decide where and how their children are educated. We educators need to show more humility and realize that as much as we might care about our students, they don’t actually belong to us. We need students just as much, if not more, than they need us, so we should cherish them, not lock them out of school and call it a “holiday.” School choice should be seen as a parental right, not as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table. Considering that parents are not obligated to send their children to district public schools and could decide take advantage of other options, I suggest that CTU think twice about striking again next month. And if all else fails, my inner Rosa Parks just might move to the front of the education reform bus and call for a “school pool.”
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

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