Create a separate district for Chicago charter schools

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I am not surprised that the Chicago Tribune in a recent editorialopposed Interim CEO Terry Mazany’s call for a one-year moratorium onnew charter schools. The stated basis for the proposed moratoriumreally is without foundation, i.e., a lack of space in CPS schools toput charters. The real issue here is not space, because charters can beapproved without providing sites for them and CPS has zero obligationunder the Illinois charter school law to find that space for them.

In a report I authored for Access Living in April 2009, “Renaissance 2010 and students with disabilities,” we recommended CPS slow down its goal of opening 100 new schools. In this report, I depicted the lack of attention to detail that CPS was devoting to the educational program for students with disabilities in these new schools, many of which were charters. The academic results for students with disabilities attending charter and contract schools were far from awe-inspiring. Access Living met with Mr. Mazany in his capacity as president of The Chicago Community Trust and with a representative of the Renaissance Schools Fund about the results from this study.

The real issue that prompted Mr. Mazany to call for the moratorium is that charter quality is all over the map, as is the fiscal viability of many charters (within the context of the overall fiscal crisis of the state government in Illinois and with CPS itself). Mr. Mazany, I think, has gotten a fairly good look now at these issues, and it has given him reason to be concerned for the future of CPS if the charter school model continues to grow at its current pace.

There will likely be about 50,000 charter school and contract students in CPS next year. According to the FY 2011 budget, CPS projected 37 charter schools with 82 campuses and nine contract schools across the city, with 44,300 students. Based on the rate of growth in charter enrollment, the number could hit 100,000 charter students within a relatively short period of time. 

Mr. Mazany, being an intelligent man with a serious social science background, of course can see the dangers of such dramatic change to CPS. But his opposition to rapid expansion of charter and contract schools is hopeless. The Tribune and Chicago’s business community is full-speed -ahead with this transformation. The Tribune editorial board has less concern with possible consequences because the critical objective here is not so much providing Chicago’s children with a stable public education for years to come. Rather, the central objective appears to be to break the Chicago Teachers Union and other organized staff within CPS in order to potentially drive down costs while in theory improving academic achievement for low-income students.

Unfortunately for the Tribune and the leadership of Chicago’s business community, charters are not the ideal low-cost educational option, because of the fundamental laws of economics. The driving force here is economy of scale, which is not achievable for relatively small and fiscally weak educational management organizations (EMOs) or charter networks, which operate the bulk of charters without the power of taxation granted by law to CPS. EMOs, surviving on tuition payments and pass-through funds from CPS and whatever they can raise from philanthropic sources like the Gates Foundation, University of Chicago, the Walton Foundation, etc., are on shaky ground given the current situation with public revenue.

Charter schools cannot lower their costs enough to keep this model viable when faced with rapid expansion and a situation in which these schools could eventually face direct cuts. When former CEO Ron Huberman discussed in FY 2011 a possible 18 percent cut in funding to charters, Sylvia Ewing of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools stated many schools couldn’t survive that cut. That bullet was avoided last year, but many others are waiting. For example, the very conservative Illinois Policy Institute has proposed cutting Illinois funding for education by $1.7 billion equal to a 17.4 percent reduction from Governor Pat Quinn’s proposed budget. Even some Democrats in the General Assembly question the revenue projections on which the Governor based his proposed funding for education in FY12.

One option for CPS is to separate out all charter schools under a statewide charter authorizing and supervision commission under the authority of the Illinois State Board of Education. This would require action by the Illinois General Assembly. It could allow for the unlimited growth in charters and insulate CPS and other school districts from the fiscal implosion of the charter model, should it happen.

CPS could over the coming years then become a smaller school district and the CTU could lose members. In that situation, CPS should transfer some less-utilized school buildings to charter schools, which would have to compensate the district at market value—values which will not be high right now. In many cases CPS buildings are worth only land values less demolition costs, and in other cases the fair market value for better-maintained buildings would be far higher. An independent authorizer, however, might take a much more sober perspective on expansion based on current and reasonable projections for education funding, along with reasonable projections of the demand for charter school slots in the state which could result in virtually no decline in CPS enrollment.

An independent charter school commission should be paid for by the charter schools themselves, in a manner that the much more limited commission proposed currently in Illinois SB 79 does. Such a commission should create cooperative agreements among charter schools for the provision of special education services. It should carefully examine and control EMO fees paid by local charter schools to parent organizations. It should critically examine all issues related to administrative costs for charters. An independent commission should have the authority to challenge proportional share payments going from CPS to charter school students who live in Chicago and take disputes over these issues directly to the Illinois State Board of Education for final resolution. It should carefully examine the academic and fiscal situation of charter schools and close those schools which are not working. In the event of closure, the commission should provide placement options in other charter schools for displaced students if that is the preference of parents. The commission itself should have rigorous reporting requirements to the ISBE.

The scope and size of the charter school sector here in Chicago is becoming too large to be housed within the traditional structure of the Board of Education.  Let charter schools stand or fail based on the students they can enroll and the results that they can achieve.

Rodney D. Estvan is an education policy analyst for Access Living of Chicago, a nonprofit that works on behalf of people with disabilities.