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Tread lightly with charter schools

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Updated: January 19, 2014 11:48AM



Six months after Chicago voted to close a record 50 schools, charter school opening season is upon us in Chicago.

Tread lightly here, Chicago Board of Education.

It’s in the board’s best interest and all of Chicago’s, really.

A jaw-dropping 21 charter school applications are before the board to open in the next few years, 13 of which are to open next fall. That’s on top of 10 schools already scheduled to open fall 2014.

Another eight have applied to open by 2017 and one charter provider, Noble Street, aspires to add eight more campuses by 2018.

Add them up and at least 39 new charters could open in Chicago by 2018. Even if some don’t make it — some won’t open because charter operators struggle to secure buildings — that’s still a big number.

This page supports quality charter schools but not blindly. At a time of deep fiscal distress for the school district and deeply frayed relations between the board and many in the public, an onslaught of new charters could easily do more harm than good.

Each new charter spreads a cash-strapped district thinner still and risks stripping money from neighborhood schools that suffered deep budget cuts last year. Plus, mass charter openings right after mass closings don’t sit well, to put it mildly, with an already cynical school community. Because charter schools admit students by lottery and can more easily expel or encourage students to leave than traditional schools, neighborhood schools can end up with a more difficult student population. Those unintended consequences must be addressed, and even greater support for neighborhood schools must be deployed.

The good news is there’s still time to rein this in. The 21 applications are simply that — applications that CPS is required by law to accept but not necessarily approve.

The Schools CEO and her staff should recommend a smaller, more fiscally responsible number of schools to board members to approve at the Jan. 22 board meeting.

Charters are privately run public schools, financed largely by public dollars, that are freed from many of the rules that govern traditional schools. Chicago already has 130 charter campuses, including 15 that opened this fall, serving about 53,000 students.

As CPS staff makes a decision on which charters to recommend — expected before a Jan. 7 public hearing — the criteria are straightforward. They should focus on schools slated for neighborhoods with severe school overcrowding and charters that give dropouts a second chance. CPS has wisely identified these as top priorities for charter expansion. We also support the expansion of proven, high-quality charters such as Noble Street.

CPS’ Jack Elsey, who oversees charters for CPS, told us that the board is under no obligation to recommend all 21 schools and stressed that the decision-making “discussion will be above anything else about quality. [The Schools CEO] has made it pretty clear that while she is agnostic to school type, she absolutely cares about making all schools quality schools.”

That’s good news.

But it’s crucial to consider how charter expansion impacts the rest of the school system. We strongly support school choice but for many Chicago families — either deliberately or by default — neighborhood schools are the only option. CPS must be mindful of supporting that choice as well.

Charters are no panacea. Like traditional schools, some are fantastic, some terrible, many mediocre. The bar for charter approval must be set exceedingly high.



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