When Andrew Broy addressed reporters in advance of the Chicago teachers’ strike to say the work stoppage would have no impact on the city’s charter schools, he was doing more than just assuring current charter families that schools would remain open (12 percent of the city’s public school population of 400,000 is enrolled at charters). The president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools was also engaged in public relations, knowing the strike would force tens of thousands of parents to alter work schedules or scramble for day care.

“I just see charter options and opportunities growing in any event [but] if there’s a strike the pace might accelerate,” Broy told the Chicago Tribune.

This puts into practice Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum to never let a serious crisis go to waste, but it also gives the charter school movement a reason to reflect on its attributes after twenty years. 

Leaders in the movement have been focused during the past several years on charter school quality, looking to scale up the best models and proffering the standards by which all charters and their authorizers should live by. This has been necessary for the vitality of the movement, but it’s an agenda that has, at times, disregarded the idea that parents have a fundamental right to choose their child’s school.

When thousands gathered at last June’s National Alliance for Public Charter Schools conference in Minneapolis, there was lots of talk about accountability and replication, but little about the moral argument for school choice. Yes, charter schools gave life to the concept that freedom and autonomy can break the stasis of the traditional school bureaucracy, so long as the schools were accountable to the public. But they also redefined the “public” school and popularized the notion that parents can leave their assigned school and choose an option that better meets their child’s needs.

The parents of the roughly 48,000 schoolchildren attending public school in Chicago today likely feel fortunate they had the freedom to make that choice. One parent who left her neighborhood school three years ago for a charter school told the Chicago Tribune that she thinks she averted disaster. “I’m glad I made the switch,” she said. “I feel for the other parents because a lot of them are working. What are their children going to be doing?”

As the movement has grown and matured, it has assembled a group of hyper-talented intellectuals and entrepreneurs who have helped to create the conditions for high-quality networks like Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools to flourish, but it hasn’t championed parental choice lately the way school-voucher leaders have. While the voucher movement could learn more about the attention to quality and transparency that characterizes better charter schools, its leaders have found purpose in the notion that parents know what is best for their children. The charter movement can learn from that, and the Chicago strike has made that lesson relevant.

Thousands of public school parents in the Windy City have made the switch from district schools to charter schools in the last few years (enrollment grew by 13 percent between 2011 and 2012 alone). And Broy is right to suggest that the current crisis could lead thousands more to consider an option that didn’t exist twenty-five years ago, the last time Chicago teachers went on strike. Chicago charters could very well see its market share of the public school population increase before the strike is resolved, and Broy is ready to highlight the advantages his sector has to offer. Other charter leaders don’t have to wait for another crisis to highlight that they have a choice worth considering.

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