Chicago Teachers Union Deal Blocks Efforts to Open Classical Charter School

Published February 21, 2017

Parents Alice Epstein and Heidi Schroeder have been working for three years to develop the proposed Chicago Classical Academy. The school is affiliated with the Barney Charter School Initiative, a project of Hillsdale College that assists groups working to found classical charter schools in designing curriculum and training teachers.

Chicago Classical’s founding board, composed of Epstein and Schroeder, Hillsdale graduate and financial advisor James Gurnee, and advisor Bruno Behrend, plans to submit a charter application to the CPS  Board of Education in April. If it’s approved, the founders plan to open the Chicago Classical Academy in fall 2018.

‘Not an Easy Process at All’

Epstein says the charter process in Chicago seems designed to discourage applicants.

“It’s not an easy process at all,” Epstein said. “It’s daunting, long, difficult, and there are a lot of places along the road where I think a lot of teams would give up. The charter schools in Chicago are authorized by Chicago Public Schools. The teachers union in Chicago is very anti-charter, so there’s a very complicated dynamic there where the authorizer is very involved with a very anti-charter organization.”

‘Greatest Threat’ to Unions?

As part of a labor agreement CPS made with the Chicago Teachers Union in fall 2016, “Chicago Public Schools committed to limit the number of students enrolled in CPS charters from increasing much beyond the total capacity for all buildings at the end of last school year,” The Chicago Tribune reported in November. “The district also agreed to a ‘net zero increase’ in the number of charter schools it approves.”

Behrend says charter schools threaten CTU because families strongly prefer charters over traditional public schools.

“From the union’s perspective, charters are the greatest threat at the moment,” Behrend said. “Because so many students have moved out, they are really putting on hardcore pressure to deny charters or freeze charters. They’re working at the state level and at the Chicago level to stop every charter they can.”

Engaging the Community

Epstein says Chicago Classical must engage the community to thwart the union’s objections.

“The best way to overcome [the union] is through very robust community engagement during the application process,” Epstein said. “That means reaching out to parents, businesses, churches, community centers, libraries, anything in the neighborhood that serves children and families. That process is difficult, and it’s very time-consuming, but in the end, it’s incredibly rewarding because you are really building a school that reflects the neighborhood and the people.”

Schroeder says the community engagement requirement is an appealing concept, but it allows the Board of Education too much room for interpretation. 

“It is really great in theory that the process is requiring you to involve the community so [the school] is a wanted, community, neighborhood school,” Schroeder said. “Where my pessimism comes in is that it allows for a lot of subjectivity.”

Inspiration and Mission

Epstein says personal experience inspired her to open the academy.

“I started researching charter schools in general and a classical model when I was trying to help my oldest stepdaughter navigate the Chicago Public School system,” Epstein said. “I found Hillsdale and the Barney Charter School Initiative, and I thought it was a fantastic academic program and could not find anything like that in Chicago. With three little ones now who need schooling in Chicago, this is my life’s passion, to make sure this school opens its doors soon for my kids and other kids like my family in the city.”

Epstein said the classical model ensures students “are truly well-rounded people who have at least begun to cover the knowledge that humanity shares.”

Epstein says “[m]ost parents’ faces light up” when she tells them about the classical model.

“This is exactly what they had been [wanting] for their children,” said Epstein. “They just weren’t able to verbalize it before we spoke about it.”

Education for Life

Gurnee says the well-rounded education he received at Hillsdale has helped him in the professional world.

“In high school I had a public education, so moving onto Hillsdale, I think the biggest advantage is the fact that you’re getting a little bit of everything,” Gurnee said. “You’re able to apply these skills to your life as you go on. I work in the finance industry, and that was not my major while at Hillsdale. You learn to be well-rounded and to think critically and to apply those lessons to other areas. The same has been true for a lot of Hillsdale graduates who have gone on to excel in other areas than their specific majors.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.


“A Classical Option for Chicago,” Chicago Classical Founding Board, September 2016: