Charter school proponents and opponents spoke out Wednesday night at back-to-back hearings on proposals for new charter schools under consideration by the Chicago Public Schools.
Hundreds of charter school proponents and opponents held dueling rallies Thursday night outside Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters, where public hearings were held on new charter school proposals.
On one side of the sidewalk outside the CPS offices, 42 W. Madison St., were pro-charter protesters, mostly students from the Noble Network of Charter Schools. On the other were anti-charter school protesters, many with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.
The groups chanted simultaneously, "Noble, united! We'll never be defeated!" and "No more Noble!"
Here's more from the scene outside CPS headquarters:
Noble is among seven groups that are looking to open new charter schools in the city next year. In all, cash-strapped CPS is considering proposals for seven new traditional charter schools and six alternative charter schools. The public was able to weigh in on the various proposals during three back-to-back, 90-minute hearings Wednesday night.
Debate over Noble's proposal for a Southwest Side campus has been raging for months, and it continued during the hearing. The charter network wants to open a high school campus in Brighton Park near 47th Street and California Avenue, just blocks from Thomas Kelly High School.
Charter expansion opponents, who delivered what they said were 6,500 letters against Noble's proposal, said the Southwest Side simply doesn't need another school, charter or otherwise. They expressed worry that the new Noble school, if approved, could mean less funding for the already cash-starved traditional neighborhood schools in the area.
Julia Berger, a special education teacher at John F. Kennedy High School on the Southwest Side, said her school had over $305,000 slashed from its budget this year. Kennedy also experienced millions of dollars in budget cuts over the previous four years, she said.
"Building a new charter school in Brighton Park would cause even more cuts in the coming school years," she said. "This would jeopardize much of the hard work and success that our students, staff and community have managed to achieve."
Noble proponents argued that a new charter high school could help address overcrowding at local schools and provide convenience to Noble students who already live on the Southwest Side but attend schools in other communities.
"This project will not take money from any other school or Chicago Public Schools and will instead turn a vacant lot that has been empty for years into a vibrant part of the community," said Angelica Alfaro, Noble's advocacy manager.
Students and parents on both sides of the issue spoke about the academic success they achieved at their respective schools.
Eighty-six people signed up to speak about Noble's plan, the most out of all the proposals.
The other groups proposing charter schools include: Connected Futures Academy, KIPP Chicago Public Charter Schools, New Life Academy, Perseid Academy, STARS Project Engineering Academy and Youth Connections Charter School.
The charter proposals were submitted to CPS back in April as part of the district's new schools application process.
By law, CPS has to open up its application process for new charter schools each year. The district, however, is not required to approve the applications it receives. The Chicago Board of Education will vote on the new school proposals recommended by CPS at its October 28 meeting.
The district is weighing whether to open new charters at a time when it grapples with massive budget and pension issues. The district's budget for this year depends on $480 million in pension savings from Springfield that have yet to materialize, and school officials have warned of massive potential layoffs if CPS doesn't get the financial help it needs.
Some of the new charter schools under consideration would be co-locations, meaning the charter school would share a building with an existing public school.
All three of KIPP's West and Southeast Side charter school proposals, for example, are co-locations. KIPP wants to bring new campuses to Rezin Orr High School, Henry H. Nash Elementary and Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy.
"The whole goal is to make sure we are bringing resources into underutilized schools in Chicago, so that we can help be part of the solution to keep schools open and that we're committed to giving parents choice in their neighborhood so that they don't have to travel for a charter school," said Nicole Boardman, KIPP's chief operating officer.
Orr Principal Tyese Sims was among a number of speakers who urged against co-locations with traditional public schools.
"I do not belive in co-locations," she said. "Mixing elementary (school students) with high school students is a safety risk."
New Life Academy is also proposing a co-location. The group wants to open a performing arts charter high school in Hirsch Metropolitan High School in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. The school would be operated by the education management organization Edison Learning.
One speaker noted that Edison Learning had previously worked with the Chicago International Charter School (CICS), before the charter network cut ties with the school management firm back in 2012.
"CICS, one of the larger charter school networks in Chicago, fired Edison Learning from running its charter schools for mismanagement, for running budget deficits, for having operational difficulties and extremely low academic performance in their network. I don't understand why we're considering giving them another school," stressed Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) organizer Martin Ritter. "They have had futile results, and they have bad operational practices, and we should not give them any more charter schools, and 42 aldermen also say they don't want any more charter schools."
Ritter was referring to the non-binding Chicago resolution introduced last Thursday calling for a statewide moratorium on the opening of new charter schools this academic year.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) introduced the resolution, which has been signed by most aldermen and calls on both the Chicago Board of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education to implement a charter school moratorium for the 2015-2016 school year.
The resolution calls on the state to take action, because any charter school proposals rejected by CPS can be appealed to the Illinois State Charter School Commission. The commission has the power to overrule local school boards if they turn down new school proposals from charter firms.
After speakers brought up the charter school moratorium resolution, Pam Witmer with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools highlighted some recent charter news that may have flown under the radar.
Just days after the anti-charter resolution was introduced in the Chicago City Council, the U.S. Education Department awarded two Chicago charter networks, LEARN and Noble, competitive grants on Monday to support the opening of new campuses, she noted.
"Earlier this week," Witmer added, "the state of Illinois was also only one of eight states to win a grant to support charter school growth based on the state's track record of success. Outside of Chicago's political vortex, these schools were judged by one thing alone: their positive impact on students."
Special Education Cuts
Jennie Biggs of the Raise Your Hand education coalition drew a connection between the expansion of charter schools and the new special education cuts unexpectedly announced by the district last Friday.
"The expansion of charter schools is really just a redirection of resources from one to school to another," she told Progress Illinois during an interview on Tuesday. "You can also look at it as a redirection of resources from one service to another, so it's definitely related to the special education cuts, because that requires funding, and that funding is leaving, being redirected elsewhere."
Because of tenth-day enrollment declines, the school district announced Friday that it would be making $12 million in special education cuts, which works out to be a reduction of 69 teachers and assistants. Those cuts are in addition to the $42 million in special education funding slashed this summer.
Amid outcry from educators and parents over the newest special education cuts, CPS on Tuesday said it will review the proposed funding reductions and give principals until November 2 to appeal them.
That development came the same day the CTU issued a report, declaring that special education services at CPS are "in crisis."
CTU argues that CPS "has painted a false picture" about the cuts to special education. The union's report calls for an audit of special education services across the district.
According to CTU's calculations, there are 161 schools losing special education teachers, while 185 are losing assistants.
"These schools will have to cope with the loss of 237 special education teachers, and 337 special education assistants," the report reads. "Furthermore, of the 40 schools that clawed back special education aide positions in August from the district, 21 of those schools have now lost aide positions in the 10th day cuts. Across those 21 schools, more special education paraprofessional positions have now been cut than they had won back: 42 cut this week vs 41.5 gained on net in August."
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former CPS counselor, called the additional $12 million in cuts to special education "ludicrous."
"It's an atrocity to take away resources from kids that need it the most. As a council member, I will fight tooth and nail so that doesn't happen," she told Progress Illinois on Tuesday.
"Obviously, whoever's making these decisions has no clue what education is about, has no clue what goes on inside our schools, and again, we need an elected school board. I don't know where this decision came from, but it's ludicrous."
Due to budget pressures, "for the first time this year, CPS can no longer hold schools harmless when enrollment falls below projections," CPS said in a statement.
While the cuts are reviewed, CPS said no additional special education positions will be eliminated during that time.
"Delivering services to Chicago diverse learners is a critical part of CPS' mission to ensure all of our students have the tools and resources they need to be successful in school," CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement. "We will work with principals at all our schools to make sure that all issues have been resolved and that every principal has an opportunity to go through the appeals process if they wish."