Debate League

They all looked alike: understated white, blue or pink shirts and dresses, perhaps a jacket draped on the back of the chair, sporting loosened ties and conservative handbags. Most of the attendees were teachers. On last Wednesday night, however, similarities stopped at the sartorial at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

With the controversy whipped up by the teachers’ strike only two months ago as a backdrop, the hostility between charter schools on one hand and the public schools’ CTU on the other was exposed during a forum convened by the Better Government Association and Catalyst Chicago. Both party’s representatives seemed more like partisan boosters intent on playing to the cheers of the crowd than sober leaders aiming to cooperate for the sake of progress. The first was Andrew Broy, the President of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, and to his left was Jackson Potter, Staff Coordinator for the CTU.  In between both men sat Charles Payne, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Social Service Administration, who was meant to bring an expert’s detached eye to an emotional debate.

Broy offered a first passionate rallying cry: “People don’t credit the choice of parents in the city! They’re flocking to the charter system, and poorer parents are lobbying for charters in large numbers for their children.”

Soon followed the heated riposte from Potter, an unmistakable urgency in his voice. “Choice has become code for separate but unequal. So when you’re talking about decentralizing our schools and letting charter operators decide how to run these schools, that’s undemocratic!”

With each proclamation, each cheerleader got the expected adulation from their audience. Union teachers greeted Potter with loud handclaps and the occasional foot stomping when he painted charters as opaque organizations resistant to scrutiny. And the charter teachers responded in kind, “Mm-hmms” ringing out when Broy described the success story that is Urban Prep Academies in Englewood.

While supposedly in dialogue, both men were speaking in different languages. Just as Potter was intransigent in his belief that the expansion of the charter school system necessarily meant the “decimation” of public schools around Chicago, Broy remained unshaken in his conviction that charters better helped students even long after they left his classrooms, calling on the CPS to reverse the cuts in funding to charter schools over the past 4 years.

It was finally left to Payne to decry the rancor that reigned that night, seeing the outright hostility as frustrating any real progress for Chicago’s children.

“Charter vs. Public is the wrong question. These are two failing systems! The great majority of children in either system are not likely to do well in this world. The question we should be asking is: Where in this country do we find the best option to educate our children?”