Chicago Public Schools filed lawsuits Wednesday in an attempt to block three charter schools from staying open under the management of the state charter school commission, which recently overturned the district’s decision to shutter the schools for poor performance.
At Wednesday’s School Board meeting, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said the district would work with state legislators to “rein in” the state commission and “return local control” over charter renewals and revocations to school districts.
“Charter schools that are failing to teach children basic math and skills should be closed and the dollars reinvested in schools capable of preparing students for academic and life success,” Claypool said.
Some observers, like Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, saw the lawsuit as “a distraction from fiscal and labor issues that are more pressing.”
It’s a confusing and chaotic time for CPS, which doesn’t want to see its authority undermined just as it’s trying to hold charter schools to a higher standard.
CPS is in the midst of on-again, off-again contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union. As part of negotiations, CPS has offered to cap charter school growth — though it also issued a Request for Proposals for new charters, to which 16 operators expressed their intention to apply. A vote on those proposals likely will be held later this fall.
Before the lawsuit
In early March, the state charter commission voted 6-0 to permit three South Side charter schools to stay open for the coming school year, despite their poor academic performance.
Commissioners attached conditions to their charters, which included developing academic improvement plans and demonstrating they could find a new facility and maintain most of their enrollment. All three schools — Amandla Charter School, Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Sizemore Academy and Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School — currently occupy CPS buildings. The district says their leases are tied to their charter agreements, and would terminate if the schools close.
At the time, commissioners questioned charter school leaders about their academics and indicated their schools could be closed if they didn’t improve. But commissioners ultimately decided to keep the schools open, saying CPS didn’t give them enough notice of the new accountability policy it used to close them.
In the lawsuit, CPS says the central question it’s asking the court to decide is whether state law allows the commission to give a charter to a school that the commission “itself has concluded fails to meet acceptable levels of academic performance.”
The district says the state commission lacks the authority to keep open poorly performing schools, and points to some technical processes in state charter law that officials say weren’t properly followed.
They say none of the schools presented plans that demonstrated they could continue to operate without the district’s financial help — a bar the schools have to pass to stay open. And they question whether the commission could make a decision about whether to allow Sizemore Academy, a single campus of a larger charter network, whose charter is still valid with CPS, to stay open on a new charter under the state commission.
Greg Richmond, a former commissioner who heads the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says generally when courts are asked to weigh in on such matters, they’re more comfortable making a ruling about whether a process was conducted fairly under the law.
Sometimes they’re less comfortable when you get into ‘what’s a quality school?’” he says.”Then they’re more likely to defer to others on those kinds of issues.”
And while courts can be “unpredictable” when it comes to charter law, Richmond says they almost always allow schools to stay open while a case plays out, which could take months or years.
“That part is frustrating,” he says.”On all sides — parents, the district, the schools — no one is happy.”
The lawsuit is the second the district filed in Cook County Circuit Court this month. Two weeks ago, officials sued former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her associates at SUPES Academy for $65 million for their roles in a kickback scheme.