Christmas brings up painful memories about school choice in Chicago

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It happens to me every year. December rolls around and everyone begins to hang out the holly…it’s Christmas. But, in the midst of all the cheer, I find myself working on organizing a school fair or reading a story like the one in the Chicago Sun-Times recently about parents desperately searching for a high-quality school environment for their children and I am suddenly transported back to the winter of 1998 and 1999 when I was in 8th grade. Suddenly, I am struck afresh by the stress of the school search process in Chicago. Thousands of young people experience it each year; stockings hang on mantels and lights hang on trees from 79thstreet to the loop…as their futures hang in the balance of a school admissions decision.

I didn’t really understand it when I was in the 7th grade. I mean, the teachers and the counselors told it to us over and over again from the beginning of the school year. “The grades you get this year and the scores you get on the standardized test will determine what high schools you get to select from.” They told us how high school was going to be the most important decision that we will have made in our young lives. But, we were 12 or 13 years old. We didn’t understand.

I understood it a little better when I came back to the 8th grade after summer vacation. All the talk from the teachers and the counselors now was about applying to high schools. My scores were in and they were great. My 7th-grade transcript was set and it was equally good. The beginning of 8th grade was a little emotional because all of my classmates either experienced the joy of knowing that you have a chance to get into the very best high schools that the city has to offer, or the onset of a real sense of worry. A lot of the options that some of my friends had dreamed about (or at least that their parents had dreamed for them) were off the table.

The question seemed to linger over every single day of 8th grade; sometimes spoken, more often not, “what high school am I going to attend”?

Read the rest of the story by Chris Butler at Chicago Unheard.

I backed Clinton when it wasn’t cool, now I want her to get real about education

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I went on record as a Hillary Clinton supporter before it was the easiest thing to do. Now I hope that Hillary will return the favor when it comes to standing firm on her support for high standards in education and school choice.

Back in March of this year it looked like Bernie Sanders had a reasonable shot at being the Democratic nominee. It wasn’t at all clear that the Republicans would nominate Donald Trump, so it was still conceivable that independents and some Democrats might cross over to vote for their candidate. So, when the reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times stood by the entrance to the Clinton rally looking for a quote, folks were dodging him.

When I saw that, I knew that somebody other than the elected officials and party bosses needed to step up. In some small way, this political titan needed an everyday citizen to go to bat for her. So I did what I knew was right. I stepped up and did my best to argue that Hillary Clinton was not just the party’s choice, but also the people’s choice.

A few months later, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech to the National Education Association (the nation’s second largest teachers union) in which she took great pains to distance herself from President Obama’s legacy of support for high standards, teacher accountability and school options. Soon after that, Clinton’s platform committee met in Florida and turned the party’s policy agenda sharply against high standards and weakened long-standing support of public school choice—even where public charter schools are concerned.

chrishillaryI’ve been around politics and elections for a majority of my life, so I get it. The teachers unions are important members of the Democrat’s winning coalition in the upcoming national elections. Nobody wants them upset. They give money, they mobilize volunteers and they talk to millions of parents across the country on a very regular basis. People in communities often turn to teachers for input and guidance. It won’t be easy for Hillary Clinton to stand firm on these issues.

But that is what attracted me to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the first place. Because this is a party that stands for people when they can’t stand up for themselves. Because the Democratic Party platform is home to progressive policies that cast aside traditional ways of doing things when those traditions run their course and start hurting people.

Because President Obama used his policies, his appointments and bully pulpit to promote innovation and progress in education. Because when it comes to education, the students—especially low-income students in under-resourced communities like the one where I grew up on Chicago’s West Side—are those people who can’t stand up for themselves.

Because we know that spending more money on education isn’t the only answer. It is often a copout—the United States already spends significantly more on education than many other OECD countries.

Because the Democrats do the right thing. And because the Clintons are Democratic royalty.

When I look back on it, I realize that these values—the ones I learned growing up in community organizing and Democratic politics in Chicago—are what motivated me to step up to that reporter at the Hillary Clinton rally back in March when everybody else was playing it safe.

I was just being a good Democrat.

I hope that in the final stretch of the presidential election, Hillary Clinton will tap into her Democratic roots. I hope she will be inspired by the same Democratic values that inspired her to give her life to fighting for the little guy, the same values that inspired this community organizer on the south side of Chicago to want her as the next president of the United States.

When she does tap into those values, she will defy the party platform and acknowledge that student assessment, teacher evaluation, instructional innovation and parental choice are all necessary components of the change we need to ensure that every child in America has access to the high-quality education they deserve. And she won’t back down.
For the sake of struggling children and families across the nation, I hope that Hillary will make the same choice I did that day at the rally: to be a good Democrat. It got her a good quote out of me that day, but it will get us something far more consequential, a brighter American future.


Chris Butler is a father in Chicago. This post was republished from his blog, Chicago Unheard.