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Opinion: Columnists

Chicago strike shows why we need school choice

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It says something about today's public education reality that the two sides in the teachers' union dispute in Chicago were the union and the mayor. Allegedly, the point of schools is to educate children. But which side in this dispute has sole interest in children and their parents?

The answer, of course, is neither side. Unions are about the economic interests of the teachers. The mayor is about his budget and the economic interests of the city. No one solely represents the interests of the kids.

It's not to say that the union or the mayor has no interest in the quality of education being delivered. But this is just part of their agenda. Do union members have to worry that their jobs will be gone if children don't get the best possible education? No. Does the mayor have to worry that his job will be gone or his career over if children don't get the best possible education? No.

In private-sector labor disputes, sitting across from the union representative is the representative of a private company. The firm negotiating with the union has every incentive to prevent unreasonable union demands from driving it out of business. Union demands, if they run amok, can force uncompetitive pricing or poorer quality products, which would threaten the survival of the firm. The customer is king, and if he doesn't like what he's getting or the price is too high, he can take his business elsewhere.

But when it comes to public schools, parents and kids have nowhere else to go. In Chicago, they are stuck with whatever outcome the confrontation between the mayor and the union produces. There is no competition. Beyond this, even the best public school teachers have their hands tied because they cannot provide what so many of these kids need -- a structure of values, discipline, and a clear sense of meaning and right and wrong.

The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof writes, "In fairness, it's true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn't teachers' unions, but poverty." But now we have a chicken and egg problem. Are kids not getting educated because they are poor, or are they poor because the public schools, generation after generation, provide such poor education in these communities?

Poverty is preponderant among single-parent households, and single-parent households have grown dramatically in black communities over the last half-century. In 1970, 38 percent of black births were to unmarried women. Today, it's more than 70 percent.

Should we consider it an accident that over this same period, a cultural transformation took place in this country? Court decisions removed prayer and traditional religious values from our public schools. Is it worth considering that the purge of traditional values from public schools and widespread family breakdown were two sides of the same cultural coin?

I think so. But whether you agree with me or not, parents who want their children in a school teaching traditional values, rather than the moral relativism endemic in K-12 public schools today, should have this choice in an allegedly free country.

Eighty-six percent of the kids in Chicago's public schools are minority kids from low-income families. The teaching of right and wrong is what these kids need. Whatever compromise the unions and the mayor reach doesn't really matter to them.

What they need is school choice.

Star Parker is an author and president of CURE, Center for Urban Renewal and Education. She can be reached at urbancure.org.

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Star Parker

Columnist
The Washington Examiner