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Charters have to show they make the grade

Updated: July 2, 2014 6:28AM

The animosity toward charter schools in Chicago is so red hot you can almost feel it. Not for nothing were more than a dozen anti-charter bills introduced in the Legislature this spring, all but a few of which went nowhere in the session that ended Saturday.

Though much of the anger is displaced — public charter schools, after all, serve the same children who attend traditional public schools — charter critics do have legitimate beefs. It’s good news, then, to see progress on one front: holding charters and traditional schools to the same academic standards.

That still leaves at least two other big charter reforms to tackle: greater public access to charter financial information to parallel what’s demanded of traditional schools, and slowing the opening of new charters at a time when CPS can’t afford to properly fund the schools it already has.

But for today, we pause to acknowledge a step forward.

Starting next fall, nearly all charter schools will be judged by the same academic standards as traditional schools — the same test scores, the same test score growth measures, the same staff and parent surveys. Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett this week said she wants all charters to adopt the universal performance standard by the end of next school year. Those that refuse won’t be considered for an opening or a renewal of their contract, she said.

For the first time, these ratings will be used to decide when to shut a charter down. Until 2012, when CPS voted to shutter two charters at once, the school system in 17 years had pulled the plug on a charter school only five times, even though they have contracts that can be terminated. Meanwhile, new charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, have opened at an explosive rate in recent years.

Under CPS’ new policy, charters rated in the lowest performance category for two years will be closed. This change is embraced by charter critics and most charter advocates and operators themselves — good charter leaders want only quality charter schools, and they helped CPS draft the new academic standards.

CPS in the last year also has tightened up its process for approving new charters, selecting far fewer than applied and placing conditions for final approval on five of the seven approved schools. The tight lid on charters — and it could be tighter still — is essential because each new charter risks stripping money from neighborhood schools that already have suffered deep budget cuts.

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