CPS right to keep lid on charter-school expansion


January 22, 2014 6:08PM

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Updated: February 24, 2014 1:15PM

One month ago we urged the Chicago Board of Education to tread lightly with charter schools.

Board members did that on Wednesday. But their work is far from done.

Faced with 17 charter applications, the board voted to approve seven of them, following the recommendations of CPS’ administration.

Five of the privately run, publicly financed charters are to open in 2014. That’s on top of nine approved in previous years, though CPS says just two are on track to open next fall, most sidetracked because of difficulties finding facilities.

Another two approved Wednesday are slated to open in fall 2015. Last fall, 15 new charters opened.

At a time of deep fiscal stress for CPS, and even deeper tensions around growing charters so soon after the board voted to close 50 schools for low enrollment, CPS was right to limit charter expansion and keep a tight focus on schools with the very best chances of producing results.

Let’s hope they continue that trend.

CPS placed conditions for final approval on five of the seven approved charters. Some may be difficult to meet. For example, Intrinsic School, which opened its first school just five months ago, must show results at that school before it receives final approval for its second.

Board member Andrea Zopp homed in on these conditions at Wednesday’s board meeting and got a commitment that the five charters must show the board how they’ve met the conditions and face a final vote. That’s a welcome development.

The tight lid on charters is essential because each new charter spreads a cash-strapped district thinner still and risks stripping money from neighborhood schools that suffered deep budget cuts last year. Though Jack Elsey, who oversees charter schools for CPS, was dismissive of the cost issue at Wednesday’s meeting, it is a real and legitimate concern.

Each new charter gets up-front cash to get started and to help pay for facilities. And under a new budgeting formula, a per-pupil dollar amount follows each child. If a child leaves a traditional public school for a charter, that’s less money to run a successful neighborhood school. That shift of dollars also applies to other specialty schools, like magnets and selective enrollments.

Several people, including aldermen, CPS board members and the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, want an independent analysis of how charter school growth affects neighborhood schools. We concur wholeheartedly. We’d also like to see a deep dive into charter enrollment numbers. An analysis released by the parent group Raise Your Hand suggests that many charters fall short of CPS’ threshold for ideal enrollment.

This year’s charter process was supposed to focus on placing schools in areas with overcrowded schools. We see very limited results there.

The boundaries CPS set for areas it considers overcrowded are too wide and not precise enough. A Noble Street high school campus approved on Wednesday on the Northwest Side, for example, is in an area CPS considers overcrowded yet the most crowded school in the area, Taft, is six miles from the Noble site. Noble intends to open across the street from Prosser High, which is also overcrowded but not as badly as Taft.

In all, just three of seven approved charters are slated to go in areas CPS deems overcrowded. And one of those three, Intrinsic, doesn’t even have a location yet. It is committed to locating somewhere on the Northwest Side.

Charter schools must find their own facilities, leaving their final decisions to the whims of the real estate market. Charter school openings are not the best way for CPS to deal with its very real overcrowding problem.

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