Charter school friends, foes headed for CPS showdown
Board of Education to vote on proposals to add, expand nontraditional options
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
9:36 PM CST, January 25, 2011
Hundreds of charter school supporters and detractors are expected to attend a Chicago Public Schools board meeting Wednesday, hoping to influence a vote on whether to open more of the independently run public schools.
Critics forced the board to hold off on a decision to add new campuses last month, catching the charter community off guard. But they plan to come back strong as the school board gets another chance to hear the proposals, which call for two new charter schools as well as four more campuses and additional students for existing charters.
The Illinois Network of Charter Schools plans to bus 500 parents to the meeting. The Renaissance Schools Fund, a nonprofit group that raises money for charter schools in Chicago, plans Wednesday to release results from a poll it commissioned that shows 70 percent of city residents and 3 in 4 CPS parents want more school choices. The phone survey, conducted in November by Richard Day Research, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points for the general population and 6 percentage points for CPS parents.
"We're encouraging board members to approve these schools, which at capacity would serve 6,000 kids," said Phyllis Lockett, president of the fund, which has raised $52 million to open 69 charter schools in the last five years.
"When you go to board meetings, there's the teachers union and local school council members threatened by new school openings in their neighborhood and they're both fighting tooth and nail to keep a bad school open," she said. "On the other side, you have parents and students that are desperately seeking better options. In my mind, that's an injustice."
Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union plans to hold its own news conference prior to the meeting to criticize CPS for not adequately publicizing hearings relating to the charter openings.
Union officials will cite their own statistics: that 1 in 11 students left charter schools last school year, and that 5 in 6 charters perform no better than traditional public schools.
"Five weeks ago the board decided not to open new charter schools," said teachers union president Karen Lewis. "(Now) most are back on the table. What's changed? Did I miss a financial audit of all charters? Or an independent review of charter effectiveness? Or proof that they have stopped pushing out the neediest students? The only change I see is that the charters are ramping up political pressure to drown out community voice."
The charter school debate has always been contentious, with critics complaining they take public funding away from neighborhood schools, forcing many to close. The rhetoric has grown louder in recent weeks after the departure of former schools CEO Ron Huberman and the announcement that Terry Mazany, who sits on the Renaissance Schools Fund's board, would become interim schools chief until a new mayor takes office in May.
Union members and residents opposed to charters turned up en masse at the Dec. 15 board meeting, and were so vocal in their criticism that Mazany decided to table the charter proposals for further review.
"It's a loaded issue," said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute. "It's viewed by organized labor as an existential threat. On the other side, it's viewed by some as the singular solution. If (the debate is) more high decibel now, it's because the field is open on who the new mayor will be and who the new superintendent will be. People are trying to make themselves heard."
Charter advocates argue that the demand is overwhelming, citing the more than 12,000 students on charter waiting lists. At a previous community forum on the South Side, hundreds of parents showed up, some banging tambourines and shaking noisemakers in support of charters. A public hearing last week drew overflow crowds to the district's headquarters.
"The charter community has felt CPS is backsliding in support of new charter options," said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. "If there's any confusion whether communities in Chicago support charters, we're going to show them."
A scaled down version of the original proposals includes charters for Legal Preparatory Charter Academy, which plans to stress skills used in the legal profession for high school students, and Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which runs a contract elementary school in the Pullman neighborhood with an African-centered curriculum.
United Neighborhood Organization, the owner of a network of nine schools, hopes to open three new elementary schools and expand an existing middle school in Gage Park to become a high school.
Chicago International Charter Schools, the largest charter network with 14 city campuses, had initially hoped for three new locations but was forced to propose only one for now.
Noble Network of Charter Schools, which operates several of the highest-performing nonselective-enrollment high schools in the city, wishes to increase enrollment at three charter campuses and expand into middle school grades at a fourth campus.
Another school that has been proposed, Montessori School of Englewood, will not be voted on Wednesday but is still under consideration.