Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday January 17th, 2014, 4:24pm

Chicagoans Speak Out Against Charter School Expansion At Community Forum

   If the Chicago Board of Education allows 21 new charter campuses to open on the Northwest and Southwest Sides, neighborhood schools in the targeted areas and the district as a whole would be negatively impacted, education activists stressed at a community forum in Brighton Park Tuesday night.

Back in May, the board voted to close a whopping 50 “underutilized” neighborhood schools, citing the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) $1 billion budget deficit. As a cost-saving measure, many of the neighborhood schools that were not shuttered saw their collective budgets slashed this year to the tune of $100 million.

And now, the district, which faces a more than $900 million deficit next year, says it needs to open new charters over the next two years to help alleviate overcrowding at existing neighborhood schools in certain communities. The board is expected to vote on CPS’ recommendations for new charters at its January 22 meeting. Meanwhile, the board has already signed off on 10 additional charter schools that could open next year.

“If we all lost money this year to our school budgets, and also CPS closed 50 schools and we took a hit, what’s going to happen when we have still a billion dollar deficit, and they want to open 31 schools on top of that,” asked Jennie Biggs with the Raise Your Hand education coalition, one among a handful of groups that hosted the forum at Shields Middle School. “This is impacting every school. Charter schools, you too.”

A total of nine charter operators have submitted applications to open the 21 new campuses in neighborhoods such as Belmont Cragin, Chatham, McKinley Park/Bridgeport, South Shore and Austin, which saw four of its neighborhood schools close this year. Communities United for Quality Education recently did a cost analysis of the 21 proposed charters, finding that the new campuses, if all approved, could cost the district $225 million over the next decade.

“Where’s that money coming from,” Biggs added.

Proponents of charters say the schools, which are independently run but receive public money and often raise private funds through foundations and philanthropists, provide families with alternative school choices.

     But Stephanie Farmer, assistant professor of sociology at Roosevelt University and one of the panelists at Tuesday’s forum, stressed that a good chunk of charter school funding is devoted to administrative, not classroom, costs.

For example, Juan Rangel, the former CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Illinois’ largest charter operator, earned a salary of more than $260,000, she explained.

“That’s about equivalent of what CPS’ CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett makes,” Farmer said. “We have multiple charter school CEOs that make a quarter of a million dollars ... That’s the money that’s being taken out of the classroom and basically put into these people’s bank accounts.”

Another panelist at the forum, Federico Waitoller, an assistant professor in the department of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education, provided a look at charter school enrollment data among students with disabilities.

According to his research, students with learning disabilities make up about 70 percent of the total special education population at Chicago charter schools, which is about 20 percentage points higher than the proportion at neighborhood schools. Charter schools also have significantly larger proportions of students with emotional and other “non-visible” disabilities than neighborhood schools, he said. Traditional public schools on the other hand have significantly larger enrollments of students with intellectual disabilities, autism and sensory impairments, all of which require more support from schools, Waitoller explained. Additionally, charter schools tend to serve larger proportions of students in less-restrictive environments than neighborhood schools.

“We can interpret this data in two ways," Waitoller said. "One is that charter schools are very, very good about including students with disabilities in the general education classroom. The other hypothesis is that they don’t have the resources to serve (disabled) students so they’re just placing them in the general education classroom with no support."

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, attended by about 150 people, education organizers discussed some of their upcoming tactics to push back against the proposed charter expansion.

The meeting's attendees said they would contact their respective state lawmakers about pending state legislation that would revoke the Illinois State Charter School Commission's authorizing power.

In the event that the board ends up rejecting any of the 21 applications, charter operators can actually appeal the denials to the state commission, an independent charter authority set up by the state legislature in 2011. The commission has already overruled CPS’ denials for two charter Concept Schools last year, which are the only appeals the charter authorizer has granted thus far. (Read more about the state charter school commission and the push by some lawmakers to abolish the authority here.)

Many of those in attendance also agreed to contact their respective aldermen this week, urging them to support a non-binding resolution that seeks to delay the board’s upcoming charter expansion vote until the city council's new independent budget office produces a cost analysis of the effort. Northwest Side Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) introduced the resolution at the council meeting Wednesday morning and it was promptly referred to the Rules Committee, also known as the place "where good legislation goes to die." 

Community members, teachers and parents are also planning an overnight vigil outside of CPS' headquarters on January 21, the day before the board's monthly meeting, to "protest policies that starve neighborhood schools and reward politicians' friends."

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