Research & Commentary: East St. Louis Teacher Strike

Published November 16, 2015

More than 6,000 students in East St. Louis, Illinois were forced out of the classroom for the entire month of October by a protracted strike by the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers. The students missed 21 school days as a result of the strike, amounting to almost one-eighth of the school year. Outside of one high school that enrolls roughly 100 students, East St. Louis is a charter-free desert, and the city is served by only two small K–8 parochial schools, one Catholic and one Lutheran. The lack of school choice means the teachers union strike led to almost every child in the city in grades K–8 staying home.

Once a railroad and industrial hub, East St. Louis is situated directly across the Mississippi River near St. Louis, and it serves as an excellent example of a city that has endured Rust Belt decline as a result of poor policies, changing demographics, and municipal mismanagement. The city’s population has hemorrhaged by 66 percent since 1960, leaving behind only the poorest residents.

More than 97 percent of East St. Louis’ population is black. The city is essentially segregated, as are its schools, both public and private. Thirty-five percent of the city’s residents, and 48 percent of children under 18, live below the poverty line. According to the latest available census data, the median household income is only $21,324. Carrying a $6.5 million deficit, the city budget director has twice recommended the town file for bankruptcy. At 101 murders per year per 100,000 people, East St. Louis’ murder rate is among the highest in the nation.

The city’s school district, SD 189, is East St. Louis’ largest employer. The average teacher’s salary in the district is $65,298, slightly higher than the statewide Illinois average. After ending the strike and reaching an agreement with the city, teachers in SD 189 will earn an extra $12,834 over the life of the contract, which runs through 2018.

Meanwhile, only 18 percent of district students tested proficient in reading and only 11 percent in math on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE). Not a single student’s test results in the entire district reached the level of “exceeding expectations” in math or science. Only 17 percent and 16 percent tested proficient in reading and math, respectively, on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), and only 5 percent of high-school students were deemed to achieve college readiness on the ACT. These appalling numbers come at a combined operational and instructional cost of $20,465 per year per pupil. So even when the children of East St. Louis are not barred by a picket line from entering their classrooms, they are not getting much in the way of an education once they enter them.

One would be hard-pressed to find a city that better exemplifies the need for educational choice than East St. Louis. Wasteful, immune from any serious accountability, and indifferent to the concerns of the parents and students who don’t have any other options, the East St. Louis School District acts just as any other protected monopoly does in a captive marketplace.

Illinois should ensure the children of East St. Louis have other educational options available to them by allowing education money to follow the child to the school of their parents’ choice. A system of charter schools and pro-liberty educational reforms should be approved and set up in the city as quickly as possible to give the children of East St. Louis an alternative to their failing district schools and ensure they will never again be forced to spend an entire month of the school year locked out of their classrooms.

The following documents provide additional information about educational choice and its effects.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
This paper from the Cato Institute looks at the success achieved by school choice programs across the globe. The authors find the efficiency (student achievement per dollar spent on education) of private education options was higher than for public education in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts 
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. Scafidi finds the remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly alongside student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers 
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies that use the best available scientific methods to measure how school choice vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claim vouchers do not benefit participants and hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and those who remain in public schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the one used in Washington, DC, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

Evaluation of Florida’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program
David Figlio of Northwestern University reports Florida voucher recipients perform roughly in line with comparable public school students, despite a great disparity in funding. Vouchers cost the state only $3,950 per student, whereas Florida’s public schools spend an average of $7,000 per student per year.

Potential Effects of the Elimination of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on Public K­–12 School Districts
This open letter published by School Choice Wisconsin says eliminating Milwaukee’s voucher program would cause the education budget to increase considerably without beneficial effects on student achievement.

Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After One Year 
The District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act of 2003 provided a unique opportunity for educators to implement a system of private school choice for low-income students in the District of Columbia and rigorously assess the effects of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program on students, parents, and the existing school system. This report from the U.S. Department of Education describes the first-year impacts of the program on those who applied for and were given the option to move from a public school to a participating private school of their choice.

Can Vouchers Reform Public Schools?
This Heartland Institute Policy Study by education expert George Clowes addresses concerns about the efficacy of school vouchers raised by some school reform advocates. The author distinguishes between “charity vouchers” and universal vouchers and explains why the former are unlikely to cause systemic reform of public schools. However, Clowes says new data on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program show even charity vouchers demonstrate the reforming potential of school choice. Reform advocates shouldn’t give up on vouchers, Clowes concludes.

Fear and Privatization
Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University and E. Vance Randall of Brigham Young University examine public attitudes toward school choice models and find much anxiety among both private and public school advocates. The authors make many common mistakes and assumptions about school choice, but they come to an interesting conclusion: School choice advocates are successfully blurring the lines between the public and private school models by instituting a wide range of different choice plans.

How School Choice Can Create Jobs
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”

School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006 
Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Susan Aud found $444 million were saved in state budgets and local public school districts from 1990 to 2006 as a result of school choice programs. Although this substantial amount of savings to school districts is profoundly beneficial, they are still not able to compete with the high performance of private or charter schools.

Study Finds School Vouchers Boost College Enrollment for African Americans by 24% 
In an experimental study examining the long-term outcomes of school voucher programs, Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson found the percentage of African-American students who enrolled part-time or full-time in college by 2011 was 24 percent higher for those who had won a school voucher lottery while in elementary school and used the voucher to attend a private school.

The Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education|
The parent trigger is an innovation in education reform recently passed into law in California. If half the parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition requesting reform of the school under most parent trigger laws, the school must either shut down, become a charter school, or undergo one of two other types of reform. The parent trigger is unique. Unlike most reform proposals based on empowering parents, the parent trigger originates from activists on the political left. This pedigree creates an opportunity for building a successful coalition that can advance reform. Both sides of the political spectrum can support the parent trigger because it could allow parents to choose to create a new charter or voucher program in a failing district, and because it empowers low-income and minority parents to control the reform path their schools follow.

The Parent Trigger: Justification and Design Guidelines
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief presents the rationale for empowering parents with parent trigger legislation and offers design guidelines for parents and elected officials interested in crafting legislation for their city or state. It is a companion piece to two earlier reports on the parent trigger, also published by The Heartland Institute, and it carries the analysis considerably further by citing many of the bills that have been introduced since the original studies were written. The report also benefitted from a series of Research & Commentary collections produced by Research Fellow Joy Pullmann, which are available on Heartland’s website


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