On Monday, Sept. 10, the first day the Chicago Teachers Union was out on strike, 350,000 public-school students -- and their parents -- were left high and dry. But for 52,000 other youngsters enrolled in public schools, it was just another day of learning. They attend charter schools, of which the city has 119.
During the strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel did himself considerable damage by provoking a mass walkout. The teachers didn't fare much better, because they looked more concerned about guaranteed employment than the fate of their students. But charter schools lost nothing and may have gained much.
The strikers went to the mat over issues such as job security and the latitude granted to principals on hiring. The dispute was largely irrelevant to charters, where teachers are obliged to protect their jobs the old-fashioned way: by doing them well.
At many, principals are free to make their own hiring and firing decisions. Other networks have formalized evaluation systems. But the same fundamental policy applies to all: Educators are held responsible for student performance. This is a pronounced difference from the regular schools, where dropouts are epidemic even though 93 percent of teachers are rated "superior" or "excellent."
Some of those teachers are truly first-rate, but the conventional public-school model often wraps the bad, as well as the good, in a cocoon of tenure and automatic raises. And the crucial thing is not getting outstanding teachers into the classroom but getting bad ones out.
Stanford University scholar Eric Hanushek says research indicates that if the worst 5 to 10 percent of teachers were replaced with merely average ones, "the achievement of U.S. students would rise from below the developed country average to near the top if not at the top." Good enough teachers, it turns out, are good enough.
Charter schools are just one way to enhance competition among different educational models for the benefit of kids and parents. Voucher programs, which let them use public funds to pay for private schooling, are another. Both have gained a place in our educational system, over the bitter resistance of teachers unions.
Teachers unions are not necessarily the chief problem with traditional public schools. The Southern states where they are weak or absent do poorly in student test scores. But collective bargaining agreements are often an impediment to innovation, efficiencies and the elevation of standards -- areas in which charter schools have a built-in edge.
Unions are prone to asking why a teacher's job should depend purely on satisfying a boss who may be capricious and arbitrary. Never mind that most jobs in the private sector operate exactly that way, with results that consistently outpace the public sector.
Expanding school choice has much to recommend it in theory. After all, we rely on open markets and incessant competition to deliver the vast majority of goods and services, which are endlessly adapted to consumer demands and needs. A federal Department of Telecommunications could not have invented the iPhone.
A sector with artificial advantages is apt to serve the interests of the producers more than the interests of their customers. By contrast, America leads the world in higher education, where students have broad choices and meaningful control.
Charter schools are free of many of the usual restrictions and union contract requirements. That doesn't automatically make them good; in fact, plenty are mediocre or lousy. But growing evidence confirms the wisdom of offering the option.
Last year, an assessment published by the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington Bothell gave a mixed but encouraging picture. "Elementary school math and reading, middle school math and ... middle school reading all exhibit this pattern of students performing better at charter schools than at traditional public schools," wrote Julian R. Betts and Y. Emily Tang, economists at the University of California, San Diego.
University of Arkansas scholar Patrick Wolf says charter schools tend to deliver subpar results when they are new or operating in rural areas. "Those in urban areas tend to outperform traditional public schools, and particularly when they're serving disadvantaged kids," he says. The gains are not huge, but they're enough to make a significant difference over time.
Do charter schools provide all the answers to our many educational challenges? Not at all. But promoting choice and empowering individuals is rarely a bad thing. The parents of 52,000 Chicago kids can attest to that, even when teachers are not on strike.
(Steve Chapman is a columnist of The Chicago Tribune and Creators Syndicate.)