Charters not to blame for scarce capital funds

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Your attention to the issue of capital improvement at CPS schools is timely. However, the recent Catalyst Chicago cover story, “First Bite” (May/June 2007), could leave readers with the false impression that charter public schools have an unfair leg-up over traditional public schools when it comes to attracting public funding for capital improvement projects.

Blaming charter public schools for the troubles facing traditional schools is a tactic for opponents of public school choice, but pitting groups of students against one another does a disservice to all public school students. Instead, people who care about public education should look at the big picture and ask ourselves why school construction dollars are so scarce in the first place.

The lack of funding for school construction is a national crisis, not one that was created by CPS or Chicago’s charter public schools. A 2006 study by the American Federation of Teacher’s (AFT) estimates that 25,000 school buildings nationwide need repairs to bring them up to minimum standards, at a cost of $112 billion. That study also noted that three-quarters of all schools in America are in need of capital funding to bring the quality of their facilities up to “good.”

The AFT recommended that the federal government immediately launch a $25 billion school construction financing program to address this nationwide epidemic, but the federal government has so far failed to act.

This federal inaction is exacerbated by the state’s failure to adopt a meaningful school construction funding plan of its own. Not only has the state failed to pass a school construction bill for the last five years, but this year Gov. Blagojevich has threatened to veto a bipartisan $150 million school construction plan.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools supports that bipartisan proposal, despite the fact that current state school construction laws discriminate against charter public schools and prohibit them from accessing state financing available to traditional schools. But it is precisely because state law discriminates against charter public schools that CPS has had to step up to the plate to provide local capital development funding for charter public schools.

That’s not to say that charter public schools are diverting local resources away from traditional schools. The lack of sufficient help from the state or federal government to address the formidable challenge of maintaining an adequate building stock has forced CPS to set priorities, and it has adopted the common sense approach of focusing new construction in Chicago’s fastest growing neighborhoods. Charter public schools most often operate in these areas, and because charter public schools are adept at attracting funding from corporations, foundations and others, they actually ease the burden on taxpayers to fund public education and help CPS stretch its limited resources.

The track record of charter public schools is unparalleled, creating a waiting list of over 10,000 children wanting to attend one. Meanwhile, a recent public policy survey by Northern Illinois University found that only 30 percent of Chicagoans rate our traditional schools as acceptable.

What critics call “politics” in the allocation of scarce public school construction resources is really our elected leaders responding to a public demand to invest in successful programs.

Elizabeth Evans

Executive Director

Illinois Network of Charter Schools