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Vallas selection intriguing for education

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn has picked a running mate who is not afraid to poke a government union boss in the political eye.

To be honest, I was surprised that Quinn picked Paul Vallas as his choice for lieutenant governor. After all, Quinn seems to have a love/hate relationship with government worker unions.

At election time in 2010, he was pandering to their every need. During his time in office, however, he’s been saddled with the voracious appetites of his erstwhile political allies and a cash-strapped state government that can’t afford to pay for everything the unions desire.

One could call Quinn’s political marriage to union bosses rocky at best.

That said, I anticipate they will endorse Quinn again. What alternative do they have? Endorse a Republican? Dream on.

That’s why Quinn’s choice of Vallas is so intriguing. Vallas is one of the biggest champions of charter schools in the nation. He was head of New Orleans public schools, where he is largely credited with turning around the school district after Hurricane Katrina.

The Louisiana Legislature created a special recovery school district that encouraged competition and the principles of free enterprise to reinvigorate one of America’s worst school systems. Vallas aggressively used charter schools to improve education outcomes.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that have been freed from some of the regulations that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter.

Teachers at charter schools can choose to join a union, but often don’t. This doesn’t sit too well with some union bosses, who would just as soon have every public school teacher in the state contributing to their coffers.

In fact, Karen Lewis, who heads the Chicago Teachers Union, is not too happy about Quinn’s choice in a running mate. She was quoted in the Examiner newspapers condemning Vallas for his penchant for standardized tests and charter schools. She noted this led to some longtime teachers losing their jobs.

Like most parents, I don’t care how long my kids’ teachers have had their jobs – just how well they do them.

Charter schools have proved to be a boon for students.

According to the New Orleans Times Picayune, during Vallas’ tenure, the proportion of failing schools in New Orleans dropped from 65 percent in 2007-08 to about 35 percent last year. Three-quarters of the schools within the Crescent City are charter schools.

But in many cities across the country, students don’t have this much choice when it comes to their education. Too often, public school children find themselves trapped in a failing system.

Parents with the money, the skills or the time can choose private school options or home schooling. But what about the rest?

Charter schools are a terrific option for parents to consider. Unfortunately, union bosses have been using their clout in Springfield to slow down the expansion of charter schools across the Prairie State.

With Vallas entering the political fray, one can’t help but be encouraged that a candidate with a proven history in the area of education choice will be contributing to the debate.

That’s not to say I’m in full agreement with Vallas on all – or even most – issues. In the area of education choice, however, I find the governor’s running mate pick encouraging.

Teaching is a tough, demanding profession that not just anyone can do. That’s why I like the concept of school choice. Competition elevates a profession and hones the skills of its practitioners.

I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t want the very best for his or her child. That’s why parents need to be empowered with education choices.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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