Chicago to join Gates Foundation charter compact

December 2, 2011

Though they are still in negotiations over the details, Chicago Public Schools officials are set to sign on to a national initiative that encourages stronger cooperation between charter schools and traditional schools, as well as providing equitable district funding for charters.

Twelve cities have already signed such agreements, called District Charter Collaboration Compacts, which are being promoted and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to a Gates press release, on Tuesday, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and New Schools for Chicago President Phyllis Lockett will join the leaders of school districts in Houston and Baltimore in a conference call in which two new compact cities will be announced. Baltimore’s CEO Andrés Alonso has already committed to the compact.

Gates will also announce new grants for cities that have signed onto the compacts.

More than 45,000 students, or about 11 percent of the entire student body, attend CPS’ 89 charter schools, which are public schools run by private organizations. Brizard says the intent of the compact is to try to dissipate some of the animosity that has built up between charter schools and districts.

Controversy over money

For a long time, the charter school community has complained that CPS provides charters, on a per pupil basis, with significantly less money than traditional public schools.

Brizard intends to undo a 4 percent cut in funding to charters, made in 2010. But it is unclear how much more money the compact would yield for charter schools. Brizard says studies show there’s not that big a difference in funding between charter schools and traditional public schools.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools Executive Director Andrew Broy says it depends on how the funding picture is viewed. With instructional costs, the discrepancy isn’t that big.

But charter schools bear the brunt of costs for their facilities, and those costs come out of their per-pupil funding allotment. When building costs are factored in, the gap gets wider, Broy says.

At the same time, charter school opponents point out that charter schools often raise millions in private money from philanthropists and foundations, and that these private funds put charter schools in a better financial position than many traditional neighborhood schools. Also, charter schools do not have unionized teachers and often pay their teachers less.

Brizard says all the decisions on this issue won’t be made by the Tuesday announcement. “The signing of the compact is a beginning of discussion on parity,” he says.  

Outside of money issues, the compact tries to address some other areas that often linger between charter schools and districts.

Each compact is different, but, in other cities, districts and charter schools have agreed to align application processes, curriculum and talent development. 

Staff and supporters of traditional schools often feel that charter schools are held to a different, lower standard than they are. This contention is particularly relevant now in Chicago, where officials this week proposed closing four neighborhood schools. News this week also surfaced that about one-third of charter schools perform worse than the district average.

The compact requires that both the district and charter schools agree that charters should held to the same, transparent standards as traditional schools.   

Brizard noted that the work of creating more accountability for charter schools has already started in Chicago. In the past, the district has shut down less than a handful of charter schools. But at the December 14 board meeting, he expects to ask the board to take action against one or two charter schools.

In the future, he also wants to make sure that charter schools don’t open unless they meet stringent criteria. “We need to vet them better,” he said.