The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 14, 2012

The Chicago teachers' strike, public education, and immigrants

September 14, 2012

The outcome of the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike will have serious implications for the city’s students and teachers and may have broader implications for education reform across the country. The dispute centers on teachers’ pay, evaluation, and tenure, echoing the national debate over how to improve public education.

Children and their families—and the nation as a whole—have a lot at stake in these debates. Our public school system plays a vital and indispensable role in ensuring our economic success and societal progress. Public schools educate and prepare future generations, a growing share of which are immigrants and children of immigrants. Education reform affects these families significantly because public schools are crucial to the full integration of immigrants.

Through public schools, new Americans have been introduced to their native-born neighbors, have learned how to be responsible citizens, and have gained the education necessary to be productive members of society. A functional and successful public education system can help secure economic and social parity for immigrant children and their families by giving students a solid foundation for higher education and subsequent gainful employment. This in turn can promote intergenerational mobility for immigrant groups.

Many immigrant children learn English at school. Indeed, English proficiency is a significant barrier faced by children of immigrants. Two out of five immigrant children are English language learners and three out of four live in households where no one older than the age of 13 speaks English proficiently.

Public schools can give immigrant children a leg up, but also can set them further back. Poorly run and dysfunctional public schools can widen existing economic and social gaps between racial and ethnic groups and between haves and have-nots by denying disadvantaged students the educational foundation they require to progress. For American students to succeed, they need a solid educational foundation from our schools. For our knowledge-based U.S. economy to succeed, we need more highly skilled and educated workers.

As public education advocates, teachers’ unions, governments, and other stakeholders duke out the future of our public school system, they ultimately need to keep the best interests and welfare of our children in mind. In doing so, they must also acknowledge that educators need to be fairly compensated and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Our shared future is literally at stake.

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