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Editorial: Build on successes of charter schools

Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel

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Updated: January 4, 2013 6:10AM

It is easy to dismiss the Chicago Teachers Union’s latest assault against charter schools in Chicago.

Anyone who has been around the last few months already knows the union’s line on Chicago’s charter schools.

It lumps all 119 charters together as part of a dastardly privatization scheme that is hell-bent on destroying neighborhood schools — all the while ignoring the many pockets of excellence among the charters and the fact that charters are not only public schools but also are 91 percent low-income and 95 percent minority.

The union does not disappoint in a scathing new report: “The black and white of education in Chicago’s public schools.”

The CTU argues that the “utilization crisis” prompting CPS to consider closing scores of schools “has been manufactured largely to justify the replacement of neighborhood schools by privatized charters.”

It is hard to take the CTU’s analysis seriously, given their clear bias and their hyperbolic and conspiratorial language.

For example, they say charter openings are the “main driver” for the city’s under-utilization problem. That is undoubtedly a factor, but the CTU barely mentions huge population changes that have emptied out parts of the South and West sides. Between 2000 and 2010, Chicago lost 112,000 school-age children.

In addition, CTU notes that charters are producing slightly weaker elementary test score gains in reading over time than traditional schools, a genuine cause for concern. But at the same time, CTU dismisses strong test score growth in many charter high schools. It also ignores higher achievement in math and much higher graduation and college-going rates.

But the CTU report has value. It’s a starting point for a conversation that’s desperately needed about charters. Because charters, despite the good work at many individual schools, have produced uneven results overall and have had a negative impact on some neighborhood schools that must be addressed.

Some charter supporters refuse to admit charters can do wrong and, fueling the CTU’s conspiracy theories, have grand visions of huge charter expansion in Chicago. CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel would do well to tamp down those voices, creating the space to improve all schools in Chicago.

The CTU, it goes without saying, also should tamp its rhetoric while still highlighting problems with charters:

† CPS has opened charters haphazardly, without considering how they affect nearby schools. This can drain students from neighborhood schools and, in some cases, leave them with needier populations. Going forward, CPS should carefully align charter openings with community needs and focus on proven charters as well as supporting neighborhood schools.

† The CTU correctly points out that charters have fewer students with severe disabilities, fewer bilingual students because they have a slightly lower Latino population than CPS has a whole, higher teacher turnover and a less diverse teaching force. And charters can end up with the more motivated families who have the wherewithal to seek them out. Charter operators also admit to instances of difficult students leaving charters for neighborhood schools.

‘‘We’re not blind to these challenges, but so much of the rhetoric out there is so misinformed,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Charters, he says, exist to provide high-quality options for families and, on balance, are good for Chicago and individual neighborhoods. “We wish we could just work on the legitimate issues.”

The answer isn’t to rid Chicago of charters but to figure out ways to tackle these problems and to give neighborhood schools the extra support they need to help every child thrive.

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