CPS turns to outside contractors

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Contract schools are a novel idea that has its roots in a disputed part of state law. A 1995 amendment to the Chicago School Reform Act gives the School Board the authority to contract with third parties for services performed by union members.

The provision was written by Dea Meyer, vice president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, with the intent to give the district more freedom to create innovative new schools, according to two of her colleagues.

However, some public interest lawyers insist the wording is too vague to permit contract schools.

“Schools are not equivalent to services,” argues Sarah Vanderwicken, director of the Children’s Health and Education Project of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Of the board’s plan to multiply contract schools, she says, “It’s a pretty patent attempt to get around the cap on charters.”

Under state law, Chicago may create no more than 30 charter schools, though some may have multiple campuses, a provision that has created several schools under a single charter.

In a 2003 interview, Greg Richmond, who is heading up the district’s new schools initiative, acknowledged that CPS turned to contracts when it hit the charter cap in an effort to work with outside education vendors like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Big Picture Company.

However, now he insists: “I don’t think it violated the spirit or the letter of the law.”

Meanwhile, the research base on the effectiveness of contract schools is slim. “In so far as this is a reform that works well anywhere, it works best in the inner city,” observes Clive Belfield, associate director for the National Center for the Study of Privatization at Columbia University.

But the tiny research base to date shows mixed results. “There’s no clear evidence these schools are going to be any better,” he says.

The first contract school was created under the Paul Vallas administration, but Vallas made little use of the provision for fear of a union backlash, according to John Ayres, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education. That school, the Chicago Academy, came into being when venture capitalist Martin “Mike” Koldyke became disillusioned with the plans for the National Teachers Academy and set out to create his own teacher-training school for career-changers.

Though Koldyke got his school, Vallas did not create more contract schools for fear of disturbing a peaceful relationship with the teachers union, says Ayers.

Because the school’s rationale was to prepare teachers for careers in CPS, the Chicago Academy’s contract was designed to create a school much like a regular, neighborhood public school. The principal reports to an Area Instructional Officer and the permanent faculty are members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

However, the school has a board of directors, not a local school council, and it admits students by lottery, not attendance boundaries.

But subsequent contractors have had less interest in mirroring CPS, and their programs often radically depart from the district mainstream.

Currently, CPS is contracting with three additional providers for schools: the Erikson Institute, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), and the Big Picture Company. KIPP’s school day and year are significantly longer than they are in CPS, and Big Picture schools throw out many curricular mandates.

The new contract schools opening under Renaissance 2010 will look similar to charters, but teachers in contract schools would be allowed to join the teachers union if they so choose. (By law, charter school teachers cannot join the CTU, but may organize themselves separately.) However, they would negotiate with their employers, the private entities holding contracts, and not the district. They also are not eligible to participate in the Chicago teachers’ pension fund, which is limited to CPS and charter schools.

Districts have long contracted with private schools to serve their special education students. But the 1997 publication of “Reinventing Public Education” gave momentum to the idea of turning to private contractors to create new schools from scratch.

In the book, author Paul T. Hill argues that district officials could use their contracting powers to create schools “in places where they couldn’t get their own district to do it well.” Since then, Hill says, the numbers of contract schools have grown but are still relatively small.

Hill says he’s not surprised to hear the legality of contract schools being questioned, but argues the “pattern of practice” of previous contracting likely means courts would support a district’s right to create contract schools.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.