Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 11:03 am
Letter from CTU President Karen Lewis: ‘Students Suffer in Low-Performing Charter Schools’
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is so cash-strapped that it plans to close and consolidate under-utilized schools, with rumors that it could be upwards of 120 schools this coming year. Many people would consider this to be fiscally prudent. Mayor Emanuel is of course going to blame the soon-to-be agreed upon new union contract.
What the public does not understand, however, even though both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times have been writing about it for months, is that CPS is also simultaneously planning to open 60 new charter schools in the next few years. That decision was made last year under the “Gates Compact” in which CPS went into an agreement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase charter schools in Chicago.
The CPS district has seen declining enrollment over the last decade, as have many other urban districts, because urban sprawl is sending our families to far-flung suburbs like Oswego where the housing is much larger and much cheaper than in the city. This is not because Chicago schools are “failing”—this is an urban planning phenomenon that we have seen many times in the last century. Illinois’ farmlands are being converted into towns, and just as the highways of the 1940s and 1950s allowed for suburban commuters to live comfortably outside the city and quickly get to work downtown every day, the Metra and I-355 have been expanded out to Oswego and other suburbs to help push that housing development.
Thus, the decline in enrollment in CPS District 299 is a natural phenomenon. Populations ebb and flow over the decades.
But, what is not natural is the city’s push for unprecedented charter expansion. The mayor loves to tout unsubstantiated statistics about how popular charter schools are among Chicago parents. Today he used a new number: Now apparently the waiting list is whopping 19,000 students. Wow—that’s a lot of children who were “so unfortunate” to not get a seat at a coveted charter school.
Really? Then why did only a few hundred families show up at last year’s New School Expo, even though Chicago’s corporate elite spent so much money on promotional advertisements and even provided a free shuttle bus to Soldiers Field. Why did the UNO Charter School Network admit at the press conference at St. Scholastica last month that its organizers were going to go door-knocking in the neighborhood to try to recruit a couple hundred families to open the school this fall? Why did Andrew Broy of the Illinois Charter School Network say this week that there are several thousand slots still available at Chicago charter schools for parents who didn't want to wait out the strike?
Chicagoans need to understand what is happening to our school system. The mayor and his hedge fund allies are going to replace our democratically controlled public schools with privately run charter schools. This will have such disastrous results; people need to rise up and refuse to allow this to happen. As a parent, do you really want your child wearing a three-piece polyester suit every day to school and pay a fine every time your child’s tie isn’t on straight? Do you really believe that it’s okay for a school to punish your child with a three-hour detention because he or she wanted to eat some Flaming Hot Cheetos?
And then of course, there is the dismal achievement outcome of the majority of charter schools. Urban Prep brags about its 100 percent college-bound rate when the average ACT score of its student is only 16. Where are those students going to college?
Finally, and most importantly, there is the cost. Mayor Emanuel says we will have to close and consolidate public schools to save money to pay for the new union contract. Does anyone in the public have any idea how much money it costs to open a brand new charter school and pay for the first few years while the school gets up and running? Hundreds of millions of dollars! CPS has an entire department dedicated to soliciting charter proposals, reviewing them, and then supporting the charter during its “incubation period." During this incubation period, the school is not held accountable for its test scores, because CPS understands that of course the school will not do well initially.
This is what we want for our children? Parents don’t want their kindergartner, 5th-grader or 9th-grader acting as a guinea pig for a charter school that might eventually become a good school. There is not a single charter management network that can say that all of its campuses are doing well.
Mayor Emanuel and his charter -school friends are complaining that the Chicago Teachers Union strike has kept students out of school for a few days—what about the years that students suffer in low-performing charter schools that are still trying to figure out how to manage themselves as an academic institution? Even the hedge fund billionaires that are behind this push admit that every charter school is not going to succeed—so why are we doing this? Why aren’t we simply looking at what already works, at the 30 percent of CPS’ neighborhood elementary schools that are scoring 85 percent and above—some at 100 percent—on state tests? Why aren’t we replicating that?
Karen Lewis is President of the Chicago Teachers Union. A Chicago public school teacher for more than 20 years, she took a leave from teaching chemistry at King College Prep High School in North Kenwood in 2010 when she was elected union president.