State commission overrules CPS on charter school closures

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Amandla Charter School students embrace Tuesday night after finding out their school will remain open for the next two school years under the management of the state charter commission.

Photo by Kalyn Belsha

Amandla Charter School students embrace Tuesday night after finding out their school will remain open for the next two school years under the management of the state charter commission.

Three charter schools the School Board sought to close for poor performance won a reprieve Tuesday night as the state charter school commission voted 6-0 to keep them open.

Amandla Charter School in Englewood and Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Sizemore Academy in West Englewood both were granted permission to stay open for two years — the amount of time left on the charter agreement they had with Chicago Public Schools. Bronzeville Lighthouse, which was up for renewal, received a three-year charter.

The commission also gave them marching orders: find a new building, develop an academic improvement plan, work on board leadership and demonstrate they can maintain 80 percent of their enrollment.

The School Board’s vote to close the schools was first taken in November under a new CPS policy that allows the School Board to act more quickly to close poorly performing charter schools.

Now, under state law, the three schools will be overseen by the commission, and their funding will be deducted from CPS’ pot of general state aid.

The commission already has two Chicago charter schools in its portfolio, which are run by Concept Schools.

The commission has yet to set the per-pupil spending for the three additional schools — it can establish a range of 75 percent to 125 percent of the state’s per-student tuition rate, which is $12,266 for the coming school year.

If it decides to fund the schools at 100 percent, as it does the Concept schools, and school enrollments don’t slide from the current 1,100 students, CPS will see about $13 million less in state aid, district officials said.

The charters won’t receive special block grant funding set aside for CPS. And they will now work directly with the state to obtain federal funds.

The district says that in the end these state-authorized schools will end up receiving more per student than district-run and regular charter schools.

CPS has the option to file a lawsuit to block the charters from staying open, though it chose not to three years ago when the Concept schools gained permission to operate through the commission.

Reasons behind the votes

Following public hearings in recent weeks, parents at the schools came to see the state commission as an ally and held out hope that commissioners would vote in their favor.

That vote came less than a week after 16 operators filed their intent to seek permission to open new charter schools in response to a district Request for Proposals.

CPS officials reiterated at an hours-long public meeting on Tuesday night that for years the charter schools had struggled with academics and failed to demonstrate adequate improvement. The schools disagreed.

Mary Bradley, who directs the CPS office that oversees charters, said a vote to keep the schools open would “turn back” progress the district had made in holding charter schools accountable.

The executive director of the state commission, Hosanna Mahaley Jones, acknowledged that the schools were underperforming by both commission and district standards.

Even so, she recommended that members accept the schools’ appeals to stay open.

Citing “legal compliance” grounds, she said the district shouldn’t have voted to close the charters under its new accountability policy because it was put in place after the school year had begun. She also said the district didn’t give the charters enough notice of the changing standards.

Several commissioners said they agreed with that analysis. Commission member Kathryn Robbins, a former superintendent at a Franklin Park high school district, told CPS officials she was “shocked” by the process the district had used, saying she was concerned about the “lack of transparency, lack of warning and lack of communication.”

Troy Ratliff, another commissioner, urged the district to consider factors like a school’s unique curriculum and instructional approach when making school closing decisions in the future.

Commissioner Bill Farmer, a high school teacher in Evanston Township, said CPS should have intervened sooner if it recognized the charter schools were chronically underperforming.

When asked by the commission whether the district’s process had been fair, Bradley said CPS was working to improve it and acknowledged it “could do better.”

Several commissioners pressed charter school officials about how they’d improve their academics and indicated they could move to close the schools in the future if that didn’t happen.

“I recognize that a year from now we may be facing a similar discussion if we decide to keep these schools open,” said DeRonda Williams, who chairs the commission.

In a statement, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool called on state legislators to “restore local control” and “rein in” the state commission.

“Charter schools that are failing to teach children basic math and reading skills should be closed, and the dollars reinvested in schools capable of preparing students for future life success,” he said.

Meanwhile, Amandla’s interim CEO, Jennifer Kirmes, said school leaders already have been scouting a building, since they’ll have to vacate the CPS building they’re in now. They’re hoping to secure an Archdiocese property not far from Amandla’s current location.

“There’s a lot of work to do after this… for everybody,” she said.

  • Concerned Parent

    Another embarrassment to the Claypool administration. Even with the special friends he employs in law, his educational team, and his consultants and advisers; he and they continuously demonstrates that they do not know what they are doing. Such a waste of money and time. Shame.

  • tbfurman

    Here is a situation where one unelected board is overruling another unelected board. It’s emergency management of an illegitimate board. And there is nobody accountable at the ballot box for any of this. The charter commission ought to be dismantled or at the very least, elected directly by the voters. And the CPS board needs to be elected as well. What we have now is unsustainable; we have to bring democratic governance back into the system because this is just nuts. Thanks for the great coverage, Catalyst.

  • Ray Boyer

    Well. There you are. We have two public school systems in Chicago. One is run by the city, the other by the state. It’s a path CPS and the Mayor started wandering down as soon as they decided that it was easier to call charter schools a reform strategy.
    Now we reap the harvest. Schools so bad the city wanted to close them for underperformance get to stay open with the state in charge.