Concept Charter Schools get a green light

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Two new charter schools will open up this fall in Chicago, but neither will have a formal connection to CPS.

After CPS rejected Concept Charter School’s proposal to open two schools, the operator turned to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, which was created two years ago to handle appeals when proposals are turned down. The commission last month approved Concept’s plan to open two kindergarten-through-12th grade schools.

 District officials considered a legal challenge to the approval, but eventually decided against it, says CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll. Still, it is not clear that the district will just accept the decision. The district “is engaged in ongoing discussions to determine next steps in response to their actions,” she says. The deadline to file a challenge was last Friday.

Concept Schools already operates the Chicago Math and Science Academy, a Level 2 school in Rogers Park that opened in 2004.

The approval of the Concept proposal means a new reality is taking hold in CPS, one in which the district does not have total control over charter school decisions. Because the operator was approved through the state commission, the charters will receive their funding through the state. The state, in turn, will deduct the money from the district’s funding.

Concept Charter is seeking to get a building in the North Side neighborhood of Bowmanville–typically called Lincoln Square–rezoned to allow the school to locate there. A slew of residents showed up at a community meeting to speak against the zoning change.

The other Concept school is planned for McKinley Park, and has the support of the alderman.

At full capacity, the new Concept Schools will only enroll 1,450 students, a small number. But eventually, a number of Chicago students could end up attending charter schools that have no connection to CPS.

Money, politics

Charters approved through the commission receive a tuition rate of $9,120 per student, about $1,600 more than the per-pupil funding that CPS gives charters. Commission-approved charters also get state and federal funding for special education and low-income students directly, rather than through CPS.

Greg Richmond, executive director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a member of the commission, says charter operators think they will fare better financially by getting the funds directly, but it is unclear whether this is true. CPS subsidizes special education services at charter schools, making up the difference in what the services cost and what the state provides. CPS-approved charters also get stipends to help pay for facilities.

But Salim Ucan, executive director of Concept Schools, says that the additional per pupil funding given by the state end up significantly higher, especially when multiplied by more than 1,000 students. He says thinks it is more than enough to run the schools.  

Yet he emphasizes that his charter school management company has a good relationship with CPS and that he considers the district as a partner.

Charter operators in Illinois have always had the power to appeal to the Illinois State Board of Education if a proposal is denied, says Richmond. Over the past decade, about a dozen made such appeals, but in only three cases—none of which were in Chicago—did the state board override a district.

In 2011, when lawmakers first considered the bill creating the commission, “the discussion was about how to reduce the politics involved in the process,” Richmond says. Because charter schools are a hot-button issue in education, politics and ideology often come into play whether it is a school district or the state board of education approving a charter.

All but five states that have charter schools have a non-district authorizer, Richmond says.

The commissioners include an Evanston science teacher; a retired Joliet superintendent; the founder of Target Area Development Corporation, Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins; and Angela Rudolph, policy director of Democrats For Education Reform.

Richmond says the commissioners look mainly at the merits of a proposal and try not to get mired in other details.  Members also look at the need in the community. Richmond says he and others were convinced the Concept Charter Schools are needed because of the low graduation rates of nearby high schools.

Questions of performance

Exactly why CPS denied the Concept Charter proposal is unclear. The charter school mistakenly uploaded an incomplete narrative with its application, and because the deadline had passed, CPS officials would not allow them to resubmit. Evaluators subtracted points based on the incomplete proposal.

Evaluators also said that Concept’s current campus, Chicago Math and Science Academy, is not among the highest-achieving schools in the district and is not out-performing other schools in its area network—two of the criteria for replicating a charter, according to the district’s Request For Quality Schools proposal form.

CPS officials also questioned whether the charter management company had enough money in its budget for teacher salaries. According to hearing documents, CPS officials were worried that the schools would not be able to compete for good teachers.

The average teacher salary in the district is $74,839, according to data on the CPS website.  But at Concept, the most a teacher can earn is $50,000, Ucan says. However, he says the starting salary in Concept schools is not all that much different than in CPS.

Ucan says Concept Schools does not have problems finding quality teachers. The charter management company runs 27 schools for 10,500 students across the Midwest.

He also says conflict with the Bowmanville community stems from delays caused by CPS. Originally, the second Concept campus was to be located in Belmont-Cragin. Ucan says his staff reached out to the community and had strong support.

But CPS board members did not vote on proposals until February. By then, the lease on the original building in Belmont-Cragin had expired.

Recently, they were able to find a new location in Bowmanville.

Ucan is confident that once Concept Schools is able to do more community outreach, people will like what they hear. Concept Schools are focused on providing a strong math, science and engineering base. Students also do more project based learning than at traditional schools.

“All the design elements prepare students for college,” Ucan says.