Q&A with R. Eden Martin

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R. Eden Martin

R. Eden Martin

In July 2003, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago issued the report “Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago Public Schools” which called for creating at least 100 new charter schools to jump-start lagging achievement and offer parents more educational choice. Almost a year later, this past June, Mayor Richard M. Daley echoed the recommendation when he unveiled Renaissance 2010, a sweeping plan to shut down dozens of existing schools and create 100 new ones—mostly charter and contract schools—over the next six years. But CPS is drawing intense criticism from some activists and parents’ groups, who say the School Board drew up a plan that will affect thousands of children without enough community input. Meanwhile, the Civic Committee continues to play an active role, spearheading a drive to raise $50 million for start-up costs. Civic Committee President R. Eden Martin talked to Consulting Editor Lorraine Forte about the genesis of the plan and how he expects it to improve education.

What role did the Civic Committee play in designing the mayor’s plan?

We have been in regular contact with [Schools CEO] Arne Duncan and others in the school administration. It’s their plan. But because we’ve had an interest in it, believed it was the correct thing to do, you won’t be surprised to know that we have been in regular touch with them.

What did the Civic Committee think was critical to include in the plan?Mainly, we believe that you need to take choice to scale. We’re up to something like 19 charters, with two or three more approved. But in order to provide true choice, you have to have a lot more. Another suggestion was to concentrate [the new schools] heavily in the inner-city where public schools have the worst record.

The mayor made a big point at his press conference of asking businesses to help sponsor schools. What role do you see business playing?

One model would be where a business creates a not-for-profit entity to run a school. Other businesses believe it’s not their function to run a school. They would rather partner with an established operator, probably a group like International Charter Schools or a university. Businesses that partner this way will [likely] volunteer their people to serve on advisory boards or work in the school. A third alternative for businesses that don’t believe they can make that heavy a commitment, is simply to contribute money to the fund we’re creating.

Some community groups say the mayor and Arne Duncan didn’t get them involved in planning. They fear the community is going to be shut out and these schools aren’t going to be accountable. Look at the way charter schools operate. All of them take into account community viewpoints and involve community members and parents in various ways, through advisory groups or as volunteers. People are playing more to fears than to opportunities. And there will be far more accountability. If schools don’t meet expectations, they will be subject to having their charters or contracts not renewed. The percentage of schools in which that sort of serious oversight occurs is far greater with charters than with existing public schools, where it’s very rare to have a school close for failure of performance. … There are people lined up to get into these charter schools. That speaks more loudly about accountability and quality than vague concerns about it.

Do you see these schools costing more than the average school in CPS, the same or less?

Charters have had to function with less. They don’t have their capital costs covered, although in a few cases, CPS has made buildings available. The average per pupil spending has been closer to 80 percent (of public schools) than 100 percent. Arne and CPS have indicated that they will move to a fairer per-student operating cost. Charters and contract schools ought to receive the same capital cost recovery and the same per-pupil operating expenses as the other public schools.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to making this plan work?

People who live and work every day in the inner-city schools of Chicago could give you long, long lists of challenges, and they’d be better lists than the ones I could give you. But some include [hiring] sufficient numbers of highly qualified teachers, principals, assistant principals. Or sufficient time during the day to engage students in teaching activities and getting parent and community involvement. There are many people in Chicago who are doing a wonderful job [of creating effective schools]. The trick is to take advantage of their learning and to replicate that, to keep raising the bar, to keep insisting on accountability.

What reaction have you heard from businesses?

Extraordinary enthusiasm. Lots of people think it’s a great idea [and] want to support it. Many companies and firms have already indicated that they will support it financially and with people.

Is there anything that you would have done differently in announcing the plan to the public?

The plan itself is a very strong one. The announcement was very effective. The mayor gave a very passionate, committed statement. The planning that’s now underway to implement the proposal is on track. Arne and his team are willing to do something that’s very gutsy and puts them in the forefront of major urban school leadership.