When Catalyst Chicago contacted the Illinois Network of Charter Schools more than a month ago in advance of your full-issue treatment of Chicago’s new schools initiative, I was optimistic that the issue would showcase the progress we have made and document the challenges we face in creating more new schools. It now appears that our optimism was misplaced.
Buried in the issue is the most relevant fact: that charter schools are producing terrific outcomes for students. Based on the district’s most recent performance report, charter schools have student proficiency rates more than 10 percent higher than comparison schools. This performance accelerates at the higher end of the performance distribution. In fact, six of the ten highest performing nonselective high schools in the city are charter schools, even though charter schools enroll a mere 8 percent of public school students. On nearly every measure, from graduation rates to attendance rates to school violence, charter schools are succeeding.
This is not to say that all charter schools are great. They are not. And some of our lowest performing charter schools should close, a point we have made to CPS leadership. But to tarnish the charter movement without a realistic recognition of our progress is a disservice to your readers.
You criticize charter schools for high teacher turnover. While teacher turnover has been a challenge for urban districts across the country, including Chicago, the critical point is that charter schools have control over which teachers are retained. More important than the existence of teacher turnover is whether the teacher turnover is managed to best improve student outcomes. When districts face difficult budget decisions, they lay off teachers based on seniority without regard to performance. When charter schools face the same difficulty, they lay off teachers based on performance. Do charter schools always get it right? Of course not, but districts wish they had similar discretion to focus on what should matter (but rarely does) in our school reform debates—student outcomes.
You also note that many charter schools run deficits. As you acknowledge in your article, however, charter schools have never been equitably funded in our city. A 2010 national study showed that charter schools in Chicago receive $2,020 less per pupil from public sources than comparable public schools. This means that the average charter school class of 30 students is funded at $60,600 less than a similar public school. Even when foundation and philanthropic revenue is included, the per pupil gap remains $1,309, or $39,270 per class. The remedy should be for the district to fund charter schools equitably and to make charter school facilities access a priority. In an era where Chicago is planning to cut charter school reimbursement 6 percent while funding a 4 percent increase in teacher salaries on top of step increases, Catalyst should be asking why the district isn’t funding performance.
Finally, parent voices are noticeably absent from the issue. Thousands of Chicago families have chosen charter schools for the education they provide and 15,000 more Chicago families are on charter school waiting lists. Chicago families seem to understand what Catalyst missed—that charter schools are providing high quality public school options for our neighborhoods. In the future, we hope Catalyst moves beyond tired rhetoric pitting charter schools against traditional public schools. Chicago families want great schools, however organized, and we should focus our efforts on making that a reality, not repeating the tired school choice debates of the past.
Illinois Network of Charter Schools
Editor’s Note:Thank you for your letter. We welcome feedback from, and dialogue with, our readers. We also stand by our reporting, and several points are worth noting. While it is true that some charters do achieve great success—which we noted—the fact is that “terrific” outcomes are not happening for the majority of students in Chicago, regardless of the type of school they attend. Charters do tend to outperform the regular public schools in the same neighborhood, but few have reached the state average on the ISAT—a more telling, and realistic, measure of success, given that Chicago students must compete in college and the workforce against their peers from across Illinois, not just from their neighborhood. We also report that charters receive less money per pupil than regular schools. But we, along with Ball State University researchers who have studied charter finances around the country, also note the lack of budget transparency here in Illinois. An unwillingness to be subject to public scrutiny does not bolster the argument for receiving more public money. Finally, parent voices were, in fact, the primary focus of our main story. It is critical that parents like Charise Agnew and Sharisa Lee, who are desperate to find decent schools for their children, have their stories told. Hundreds of parents like them want, as your letter points out, a safe, high quality school of whatever type. School structure alone is no guarantee of quality