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Selecting charters in Chicago a rigged game

Updated: December 17, 2013 9:33PM

The new process the Chicago Public Schools has set up to allow for community input in selecting charter schools has been anything but transparent or democratic — it was designed to produce a desired outcome.

CPS designated the Northwest Side as a priority when it released its request for new charter school proposals in August. Neighborhood Advisory Councils (NAC) were set up to allow the community to review proposals made by charter schools.

The process was rigged from the start. The NW side NAC examined two high school proposals for the Belmont-Cragin area, Intrinsic and Noble. Intrinsic currently does not have location in mind for its proposed charter; Noble wants to locate its charter across the street from Prosser Career Academy.

Immediately upon joining the NW Side NAC, we had to sign a confidentiality agreement. Conversations have been limited by a very narrow criteria, allowing for almost no qualitative analysis of the proposals. Many members were uncomfortable and voiced their concerns about being limited to the CPS rubric. For example, our decisions were limited to whether non- negotiables, such as Noble’s infamous disciplinary fines, were present in the proposal, not whether they were desirable for a school in our community.

Rules seem to be made up as they go along. Our NAC was overseen by CPS officials from the Office of New Schools and Intergovernmental Affairs. After the NAC decided by majority vote to hold a community meeting at Prosser and had made arrangements with Prosser’s principal, CPS’ John Scott and Emily Metz overruled our decision, claiming the need for a more “neutral” space.

We voted for each criterion in the rubric separately and had to write a voter ID number on each ballot. A two-thirds majority had to be reached for consensus. The votes were immediately counted and discussion ensued followed by another round of voting. During these discussions Metz and our facilitator chimed in, and the second round of votes was taken before discussion was finished. Ms. Metz, for example, cited a Stanford CREDO study that charter schools in Chicago outperformed neighborhood schools among black and Latino students. I told her I had read the study and that the results were statistically insignificant, a point which she ceded, but not until after the vote was finished.

NACs are being facilitated by members of Stand for Children, a pro charter school organization. The NW Side NAC is being facilitated by Juan Jose Gonzalez, Stand for Children’s Chicago Director, a fact he refused to reveal in public when asked at a NAC meeting. His wife facilitates the SW Side NAC. This is a glaring conflict of interest.

Mr. Gonzalez even offered one of our NAC members a job at Stand for Children, which is wholly inappropriate.

Everything done on the NAC was paid for by New Schools for Chicago, a venture philanthropy organization dedicated to charter proliferation. Their board includes CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, Board of Education members Deborah Quazzo and President David Vitale, and Noble investor and gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. Why? Because charter schools become investment opportunities and tax shelters for the super wealthy. Intrinsic is funded by the Walton foundation, the Broad Foundation, New Schools for Chicago, and NextGen. Noble investors include Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Bruce Rauner.

New Schools for Chicago spared no expense. They catered all meals, paid for materials and meeting space. They also brought in pro charter “experts” from all over the country to guide us in the process. New Schools hired an organizer named Chris Butler to canvass for the community meetings. On December 7 I asked Mr. Butler how many people were canvassing and for how long, and what specifically they were doing, i.e. passing out flyers, door knocking, etc. He told me he could not answer my questions without his supervisor’s approval, and then asked me why I wanted to know?

How about for the sake of transparency! Decisions about how public money will be allocated for public schools should be transparent — particularly while public schools suffer under massive budget cuts in the wake of the largest round of school closings in history. The NAC is an attempt to cover the privatization agenda under the mantle of community engagement. No one is fooled. The revised proposals were supposed to be on the CPS website by December 5 but CPS blew that deadline. Several community meetings have been held without giving the the public the chance to read what is being proposed.

Opening a Noble high school across the street from Prosser is bad policy. With student-based budgeting, the Noble school will weaken Prosser. CPS voted to close 50 schools were last year due to underutilization. Charter proliferation on the South and West sides played a major role in drawing down enrollment. Charter expansion is followed by public school closings. Do we really want to foster charter growth on the North Side? It will come with a price — the erosion of public ownership and loss of control of our schools, without better educational outcomes for students.

Timothy Meegan is a nationally board certified teacher at Roosevelt High School, a Chicago public school.

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