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Editorial: A charter gut check

New Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks City Club Chicago lunch Maggiano's Banquets 111 W. GrAve. Monday Nov.26 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

New Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the City Club of Chicago lunch at Maggiano's Banquets, 111 W. Grand Ave., Monday, Nov.26, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 21, 2013 3:57PM

The Chicago Board of Education earned some credibility points on Wednesday.

At the request of Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the board approved only three of five recommended charter school proposals for fall 2013. The other two were deferred to an unknown date.

Calling it a “gut check,” a CPS spokeswoman said Byrd-Bennett wanted more time to review the two deferred applications.

It’s also a reality check.

At a time when CPS claims to have 100,000 more seats than it has children — a number some argue is exaggerated ­— we don’t see how it can justify adding many more.

Five new charters may not sound like a lot, but add that to the nine schools approved last year for a fall 2013 opening, and CPS was proposing 7,800 additional seats when the charters reached full capacity.

The two deferred charters are riskier bets than the approved ones, proposed by leaders who have not previously helped run a school. The applications went through a rigorous evaluation process that ultimately rejected five charters. But with charters producing a mixed track record in Chicago, this is not the time for experimentation.

The deferrals came after a series of tough questions by board member Andrea Zopp about the operator’s backgrounds and where the schools would locate. Only two of the 11 new charters have identified a facility. The 12th charter approved Wednesday is for an existing school that will convert to a charter.

“How can we approve them if we don’t know where we need them?” Zopp asked pointedly, raising a widespread concern that new charters will contribute to CPS’ underenrollment problems.

The lack of a facility is not a knock on the charters — they don’t want to sign a lease until they know they’ve been approved. But it’s a terrible way to plan for growth and expansion.

Zopp and other board members must stay on this. Each charter set to open next fall will face a second board vote once a location is identified. If the facility isn’t in an overcrowded area or in an area where there are no quality school options, the board has no choice but to reject it.

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