Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

End Educational Segregation

Ted Williams III


June  10, 2010
by Ted Williams III

Newly elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise to reform the city’s failing public schools. In his brief tenure, he has laid the groundwork for incentive-based pay based on the federal “Race to the Top” program, advocated a longer school day and school year, and has re-prioritized the focus of educational spending. In front of him lies the daunting challenge of changing a system that has struggled for years to provide an equal quality education for all.  It is a challenge that faces many mayors, and he must be applauded for confronting it in a bold and comprehensive manner. Yet as a resident of the city, an educator, and a parent, I must say that I am concerned that these reform efforts miss an important opportunity. 

Private schools, specifically those with a religious mission, have proven to be effective alternatives to a struggling public school system. According to Michael Birnbaum,  5,072,451 students attended the nation’s 33,740 private elementary and secondary schools in 2007. Over 74% of these were Caucasian, non-Hispanic, 9.8% were African American, and 9.6% were Hispanic. The average school size was 150.3 students, and there were 456,266 teachers. The number of students per teacher was 11, and 65% of seniors in these schools went on to attend a 4-year college.

The new mayor must recognize that private schools are able to offer significantly smaller school and class sizes and have a higher rate of four-year college attendance than their public school counterparts. In his book, Between Memory and Vision: The Case for Faith-Based Schooling, Dr. Steven Vryhof provides evidence that religious schools perform better than public schools in reading, math, science, and social studies tests. Yet, most importantly, students from ethnic minority groups and less socio-economically advantaged homes consistently outperform their public school counterparts.

For this reason, the academic and economic segregation that locks most inner-city students into failing public schools must end.  School choice represents the future of education. Most European countries have approved some form of vouchers to empower parents. The United States has failed to follow suit, although 60% of Americans support school vouchers and charter schools. Mayor Emmanuel’s reform efforts recognize the importance of educational options by acknowledging the success of the city’s charter schools. Yet this is not enough. While supporting public school choice in the case of charter schools is a step in the right direction, restricting access to the private school community is antithetical to the concept of true reform. For this reason, unless the city recognizes the importance of both public and private school options, we will remain in our current predicament.

While working for the Obama administration, Mayor Emmanuel rejected the DC Opportunity Scholarship, a voucher program that would have sent hundreds of inner-city students in Washington, D.C. to private schools. This decision is indefensible. Wealthy parents consistently exercise school choice, while middle to low income parents cannot. Empowering all parents is good public policy as their support and involvement is still the most significant factor determining the academic success of a child. Beyond teacher quality, school technology, the length of the school day, and a variety of other foci of the reform movement, parents remain paramount. It is simple. Those children that have supportive parents typically do well, and without them they often do not. 

President Theodore Roosevelt said that “to educate a man in the mind but not in the morals is to educate a menace to society.” Private religious schools have the unique ability to address the holistic development of a child in a way that our segmented, secular education system does not.  As a product of a Catholic middle and high school, I benefited greatly from the discipline, academic standards, and culture of this community. This experience proved invaluable as it saved me from many of the same social ills facing today’s CPS students. Why not give them the same opportunity? The new mayor must tackle this question if he is serious about truly transforming our broken system.

—Ted Williams teaches Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”