The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) opened up its application process Monday for new charter schools that will help alleviate neighborhood school overcrowding and provide every student with “a world class education.”
The call for new charters, slated to open in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, comes after the Chicago Board of Education voted in May to close a record-breaking 50 neighborhood schools, primarily in low-income and minority communities, due to the district’s reported underutilization crisis. In June, 48 elementary schools closed their doors for good.
On top of the recent round of closings, schools have also been dealing with massive budget cuts this summer due to the district’s new per-student budgeting system. More than 3,000 CPS employees have been let go this summer due to school closures, turnarounds and budgetary reasons thus far.
“How can CPS be opening up charter schools that then will attempt to siphon off, and probably will siphon off, students from the public schools who are concerned about the diminishing quality of their education,” asked Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In a 52-page PDF document posted on the district’s website, CPS has asked applicants to submit charter school proposals mainly for 11 “priority communities” that are dealing with neighborhood school overcrowding. The targeted communities are all on the Northwest and Southwest sides, some of which include Ashburn, Belmont Cragin, Little Village, McKinley Park, and Sauganash.
“If there is overcrowding in those neighborhoods, that doesn’t mean that they need more charter schools, that means that they need more public schools,” Lipman stressed.
CPS would not answer how many charters it plans to open, but did send Progress Illinois a statement from its Chief Communications Officer Becky Carroll regarding the matter:
CPS must provide every student in every community access to a high-quality education that prepares them for college, career and life. Just as we have worked to address our under-utilization crisis, CPS must also address the problem of overcrowding as there are several neighborhoods within our district with more students than seats available at their local school. By issuing this state mandated RFP (Request for Proposals), as CPS has done for the last 10 years, our goal is to seek out potential proposals to create more high quality school options for parents, and this is merely one step in that process.
According to CPS, those looking to open a charter must include plans for “rigorous community engagement” to ensure that input from parents, teachers and others is included in the proposals. CPS will also host Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) meetings with parents and representatives from local community-based organizations, businesses and political offices during the application process for those who wish to open a charter. The NACs will review proposals and make recommendations to CPS about which schools they prefer.
Charter applicants also have to identify their own independent facilities to house the new schools, according to CPS. Lipman said she doubts this requirement will be a barrier to charter operators looking to apply.
“They’re not operating in a vacuum,” Lipman said. “They’re operating in a political context that is moving very quickly to expand charters.”
CPS has provided some funding to charters in the past for opening new schools, Lipman noted. Additionally, the charter operator UNO was previously awarded a $98 million state grant to build new charters. Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, however, temporarily halted the funding to UNO in April due to insider deals. Nonetheless, CPS' recent request for proposals could be motivation for charter operators to ask the state for funding to help build a school, Lipman said.
Kenneth Saltman, a professor at DePaul University’s College of Education, said neighborhood school closures are inseparable from the opening of new charters.
“They’re really part of the same, long-standing project to replace neighborhood schooling with a system of privatized contracting,” said Saltman, an expert on the privatization of public education.
Saltman noted that the district has continued to close neighborhood schools and subsequently open charters at least since 2004 as part of the controversial Renaissance 2010 initiative under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan and Mayor Richard M. Daley. The plan looked to shutter 60 failing neighborhood schools and reopen 100 new schools by 2010, with at least two-thirds as charter or contract schools.
Over the years, the neighborhoods that have generally been left out of the city’s plan to shutter neighborhood schools and expand charters are the wealthy ones with the highest property values and taxes, Saltman noted.
“I don’t think the city would dare pull the rug out [from] under the public neighborhood schools in Lincoln Park and Roscoe Village, for example,” he said. “For people other than the very rich, that seems to be the plan.”
The district’s more recent underutilization crisis was simply a “mask” for closing neighborhood schools, Lipman said. The recently closed schools were not as underutilized as CPS had claimed, she said, because the method used to calculate utilization did not account for classroom space devoted to special education classes.
Before the district decided to shutter the schools and now open charters, CPS could have changed school boundaries to address overcrowding in some schools and low enrollment in others, she added.
“The question of underutilization and overcrowding should be part of a holistic look at the district as a whole,” Lipman said.
As part of the new school request, CPS wants future elementary and high school charters to resemble one of its “priority school models,” such as Next Generation Schools, which include a "blended" learning environment with some online lessons. Other models include: Arts-Integration that adds arts education into the curricula; Dual Language models that include coursework in both English and a partner language; and Humanities Focused models that place a special emphasis on humanities and social sciences.
According to the request, applications for other school models will also be considered.
Proponents of charters say they provide families with alternative school choices, but Saltman doesn’t buy into that notion.
“For almost all parents and families, it's not about the expansion of choice,” he said. “They don’t get to choose to have a neighborhood school, they get to choose from charter schools that are preforming absolutely no better than the neighborhood schools are.”
A community meeting regarding the new schools will be held December 18. A public hearing is scheduled for January 6.
The Chicago Board of Education will decide whether to approve the new schools at its January 22 board meting.
Image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green