Making the case for better school choice in Chicago

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With a monumental national election behind us and change coming to both Washington and Springfield, now is the time for our state leaders to tackle one of the most intractable problems facing our state:  the need to create a better public education system for our children.  We commend efforts by Catalyst for highlighting the intense disparities in education choices and the painful search facing desperate parents looking for a quality education for their children (see Catalyst In Depth, November/December 2008). However, as we look at the same difficult issues, we believe there are additional options that are worth discussing.

What is clear from Catalyst’s analysis and our own is that many parents know there are few schools of sufficient quality to give their kids a chance to have a good education. Parents are going to great lengths to get their children into good schools, but there are simply not enough slots available. This is the core problem, and one that parents in the Chicago Public School system have faced for decades. There have been meaningful steps to improve public education in Chicago.  But the bulk of the necessary work in this regard is still in front of us.  While we all would like to believe the Chicago Public Schools system has turned the corner, recent results from the NAEP and Prairie State exams indicate that there has been little overall improvement in educational attainment. Due to this stagnation, we have undertaken an effort to deliver high quality new schools to areas of Chicago where there has been little to offer in terms of a high quality education. 
 
To date, 51 new charter or contract public schools have been created in Chicago as a result of Renaissance 2010 (43 of these schools are charter public schools). Another 24 charter public schools were up and running in 2004, when the Renaissance initiative was announced. These schools are the result of the collaboration of CPS, nonprofit foundations, business leaders and civic groups. All of them are open to the public; not one requires testing for admission.

These schools are diverse in every way—from the demographic composition of the students and teachers to their geographic locations in the city to their individualized curriculum and approaches to teaching children. Yet what these schools have in common is a track record of academic performance that outpaces traditional public schools.

Since the first Illinois charter school opened in 1997, charters have been increasingly providing high quality educational options for families across the state, particularly in Chicago. A study published in May conducted by independent experts at RAND and Mathematica Policy Research determined that students in Chicago’s public charter schools are making gains at greater rates than at traditional public schools. Eighth-grade charter school students who move on to charter high schools are 7 percent more likely to graduate and 11 percent more likely to enroll in college. In addition, CPS’ own analyses indicate that charter schools outperform their neighborhood counterparts on virtually every measure.
 
The success of charters can be attributed to the following:  flexibility and innovation in the operation of schools, direct accountability for educational results, passionate educators and more opportunity for parental involvement. There are some real challenges around facilities and funding, and charter school operators are working hard to ensure that community voices are heard. While Catalyst’s article points out that charters are attracting “a growing pool of students from outside the neighborhood,” we believe this is a signal of their success and a clear indication of demand. The bigger issue is that Chicago is currently capped by state law at 30 charters, all of which have been allocated. There is a tremendous need for growth—there are over 13,000 students on waiting lists according to the Illinois State Board of Education. We need more charter public schools to be effective and to improve education across the City and across Illinois. But a successful movement will require a willingness to change the status quo.

We believe those genuinely committed to improving public education, including publications like Catalyst, should push Springfield to raise the charter school cap.  Providing quality education choices for families should be expanded. Parents should be able to choose from a variety of different types of public schools, not one-size-fits-all. While we acknowledge the difficulty facing parents in finding the best schools for their children, we believe the answer is to create more options and to better inform all parents about their choices.

Over time, more high-quality charter schools, easily accessible information on student and school performance and increased competition among public schools will bring broader improvement to the education system as a whole. 

Dea C. Meyer
Executive Vice President
Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago