Independent authorizer will enhance charter school quality

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I read Rodney Estvan’s recent letter advocating for a separate school district to house all Chicago charter schools with great interest.  While I disagree with some of his claims, it is a thoughtful treatment of a difficult issue that currently confronts the Chicago Public Schools:  how the district should manage and administer charter school growth in a way that maximizes the chances of more high-quality charter schools but does not inhibit the districts’ ability to improve public schools more generally. 

Like most urban districts, the Chicago Public Schools have lost enrollment for decades.  In the past three years, however, CPS enrollment has held steady at approximately 410,000 students, making Chicago the third-largest school district in the country.  What is far less known is that charter enrollment increases over the past three years have accounted for substantially all of CPS’ sustained enrollment. 

Consider the enrollment trend.  In the fall of 2009, CPS enrolled 409,279 students.  In the fall of 2010, CPS enrolled 408,571 students.  During this one-year time period, charter school enrollment in Chicago increased by 25%, growing from 30,112 students to 40,021 students. 

If it weren’t for this dramatic charter school enrollment increase, CPS’ overall enrollment would continue to decline.  Moreover, a disproportionate amount of the charter school enrollment growth was among African-American students.  In a city where the 2010 census results revealed that 200,000 people, mostly African-American, left the city over the past decade, we should be finding ways to keep families in our city.  The best way to do that is through improved schools, and charter schools are a critical component of this school improvement effort.

We acknowledge that charter school quality is uneven among the 103 charter campuses in Chicago, but on balance it is difficult to argue that charter schools have not been successful.  Based on the CPS’ most recent performance report, charter schools have student proficiency rates more than 10% higher than comparison schools. This performance accelerates at the higher end of the performance distribution.  In fact, seven of the ten highest performing non-selective high schools in the city are charter schools. 

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.  As a sector, we also take responsibility for the charter bargain that exchanges enhanced flexibility for increased accountability.  We at Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) work directly with schools to help them improve, but when they are unable to sufficiently improve and meet their academic performance targets, we do not stand in the way of charter closures.  To do so would negate the very essence of the charter bargain. 

Mr. Estvan also claims that charter schools are viewed by some as a means to diminish union power.  Those of us who have worked with charter schools for decades – authorizing charter schools, serving on charter school boards, and trying to improve charter schools – recognize that one of the keys to charter success is personnel autonomy.  Charter schools are not anti-union, but they are pro-student. 

What does that mean?  It means that when the IEA, IFT, and CTU go to Springfield to encourage a more realistic school funding model that does not rely so heavily on local property taxes, the charter community stands shoulder to shoulder with them.  But it also means that the charter sector opposes the unions when they object to lengthening the school day in Chicago, which has the shortest school day among the 50 largest urban districts in our country.  Put simply, INCS is an issue-based organization.  We don’t have permanent allies; we have permanent interests.

Mr. Estvan is on stronger ground when he notes that charter schools face severe financial challenges.  The core problem, however, is that 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. 

We at INCS have worked tirelessly over the past two years on Senate Bill 79, the Charter School Quality Act.  The main aim of SB 79 is to improve charter school authorizing in the State and to make charter school options available more broadly by creating an alternative authorizer. 

The fact of the matter is that the quality of charter school authorization varies widely among Illinois’ 869 school districts and it is time to create an independent authorizer with the expertise to approve (and deny) charter applications based on their strength, not based on ancillary political calculations.  When that happens, we will achieve what Mr. Estvan calls for at the end of his article and “let charter schools stand or fail based on the students they can enroll and the results that they can achieve.”  The charter community would like nothing more.

Andrew Broy is executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.