Updated: May 12, 2013 1:51PM
Charter schools have become a flash point in this city’s school wars, praised by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, demonized by the Chicago Teachers Union, and targeted for a moratorium by a faction of the City Council.
While the schools themselves focus on their students, the rhetoric of charter schools has become a political football, used by politicians of every stripe for self-serving purposes.
It was not always so.
Since the first charter schools opened in 1997, Chicago has cultivated a high-quality charter school community that has been welcomed by parents in almost every neighborhood, particularly low-income communities of color. Hispanic parents welcomed charter schools by Aspira and UNO because they relieved overcrowding. African-American families welcomed schools such as Betty Shabazz and Urban Prep because they provided new educational opportunities for their children.
Under schools CEOs Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan, charter schools were simply one of many strategies, large and small, to improve public education.
New schools were constructed and old schools were renovated, magnet schools were expanded, hundreds of reading specialists were hired and the Chicago Public Schools and the CTU worked together in a program to improve the lowest performing schools.
Charter school educators, many of whom had come from CPS, wanted CPS schools to succeed. And CPS administrators worked with charter school operators in a variety of areas, from special education to food service.
I was one of those CPS officials, running the charter schools and new schools offices from 1997 to 2005. It was an environment of mutual support, aimed at improving education for all children no matter what type of school they attended.
Chicago parents appreciated this philosophy, in which officials set aside ideologies and worked in partnership to improve schools.
While there has been academic progress over the past 15 years, there still is a long way to go. Graduation rates have improved, but 40 percent of Chicago students still do not complete high school. ACT scores are up to an average of 17.6, but are still far short of the system’s goal of 20.
As a result, many thousands of families still are looking for a better school for their children. Last week, WBEZ radio reported that there are tens of thousands of children clamoring to get into quality schools, be they charters, magnets, selective enrollment or neighborhood schools.
While there is some overlap in applications to the various schools, there are well over 50,000 Chicago students looking for a better school. Unfortunately, they are seeking those better schools in the midst of turmoil that has not been seen in our public school system in decades.
The needs of Chicago children and families have not changed during the past two years. Nor have Chicago’s many community- and educator-led charter schools. But the political climate has been set back, at the expense of thousands of children who deserve and need better.
Greg Richmond is the chair of the Illinois State Charter School Commission and president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.