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Editorial: Rein in charter schools

Updated: January 14, 2013 7:22AM

At the same time the Chicago Public Schools is moving forward with plans to close schools in a district that has 100,000 extra seats, it wants to open 13 new public charter schools.

How exactly can CPS square that circle? We aren’t convinced it can.

The 13 new charters will add 5,220 new seats in September. At full enrollment in a few years, that will total 7,781 seats. Nine were approved last year. Four more face a board of education vote on Dec. 19.

There’s little doubt CPS needs quality options for students, especially in areas where low enrollment and low performance are a big problem. CPS also needs charters in areas with overcrowding.

But 13 schools is too many at a time of tremendous uncertainty for CPS. Unless the board plans to vote to close failing charters — which it could do in January — the charter number should be reduced for now.

Even beyond the obvious contradiction of adding seats while trying to reduce seats, the reasons for fewer charters are plentiful:

† Cost: With CPS facing a $1 billion deficit next year, it has little money to spare. Historically, any new school, charter or otherwise, has gotten a start-up grant for desks, books, etc. The grants last year ranged from $415,000 to $1.1 million, CPS tells us. Also, when a charter opens in a non-CPS building, as many do, CPS gives it $750 per student for facility costs. CPS also sometimes spends money to fix up its buildings if a charter moves in. Multiply all that by 13, and the dollars add up.

† Location: Ideally, CPS should ensure that new charters open only where quality schools are needed. Charters offer no such guarantee: They have to find their own facilities, leaving them at the whim of the real estate market. Of the 13 schools, only three have locations so far. CPS is working hard to direct these schools where they’re needed and is requiring the charters to secure a second board vote next year on their location. If the location is wrong, the board must reject the charter.

† No guarantees: Charters are like regular schools — some great, some mediocre, some lousy. If any of these 13 charters fail to offer great promise, CPS can’t afford them.

This page is already on record opposing closing large numbers of under-enrolled schools in 2013. We are urging CPS to spread out the closures until the summer of 2014, and to coordinate them with a desperately- needed effort to ensure that relocated students end up at substantially better schools. The push to open 13 new charters next fall only underscores our concerns.

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