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School closings open door to charters

Updated: September 13, 2012 11:16PM



The Chicago school system is so cash-strapped that it plans to close and consolidate under-utilized schools, with rumors that it could be upward of 120 schools this coming year. Many people would consider this to be fiscally prudent. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is of course going to blame the soon-to-be agreed upon new union contract.

What the public does not understand, however, even though both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times have been writing about it for months, is that CPS is also simultaneously planning for 60 new charter schools in the next few years. That plan was laid out in materials submitted to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last spring.

The district has seen declining enrollment over the last decade, as have many other urban districts, because urban sprawl is sending our families to far-flung suburbs like Oswego where the housing is much larger and much cheaper than in the city. This is not because Chicago schools are “failing” — this is an urban planning phenomenon that we have seen many times in the last century.

Thus the decline in enrollment in Chicago is a natural phenomenon. But, what is not natural is the city’s push for unprecedented charter expansion. The mayor loves to tout unsubstantiated statistics about how popular charter schools are among Chicago parents. On Wednesday, he used a new number: now apparently the waiting list is whopping 19,000 students. Wow — that’s a lot of children who were “so unfortunate” to not get a seat at a coveted charter school.

Really? Then why did only a few hundred families show up at last year’s New School Expo, even though Chicago’s corporate elite spent so much money on promotional advertisements and even provided a free shuttle bus to Soldier Field. Why did Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools say this week that there are 2,000 to 3,000 slots still available at charter schools for parents who didn’t want to wait out the strike?

Chicagoans need to understand what is happening to our school system. The mayor and his hedge fund allies are going to replace our democratically-controlled public schools with privately-run charter schools. This will have disastrous results and people need to rise up and refuse. As a parent, do you really want your child wearing a three-piece polyester suit every day to school and pay a fine every time your child’s tie isn’t on straight?

And then of course, there is the dismal achievement outcome of the majority of charters. Urban Prep brags about its 100 percent college-bound rate when the average ACT score of its student is only 17.2. Where are those students going to college?

Most importantly, there is the cost. Emanuel says we will have to close and consolidate schools to save money to pay for the new union contract. Does anyone in the public know how much money it costs to open a new charter school and pay for the first few years while the school gets up and running? Hundreds of millions of dollars!

CPS has an entire department dedicated to soliciting and reviewing charter proposals, and then supporting the charter during its “incubation period.” During this incubation period, the school is not held accountable for its test scores because CPS understands that of course the school will not do well initially.

This is what we want for our children? Parents don’t want their kindergartner, fifth-grader or ninth-grader acting as guinea pigs for a charter school that might eventually become a good school.

Mayor Emanuel and his charter school friends are complaining that the CTU strike has kept students out of school for a few days — what about the years that students suffer in low-performing charter schools that are still trying to figure out how to manage themselves?

Why aren’t we simply looking at what already works, at the 30 percent of CPS’ neighborhood elementary schools that score 85 percent and above — some at 100 percent — on state tests. Why aren’t we replicating that?

Karen Lewis is the president of the Chicago Teachers Union



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