Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday January 14th, 2014, 3:16pm

Education Activists Discuss Next Steps Against Charter School Expansion In Chicago

    West Side community members and education activists are not backing down from their fight against charter school expansion in Chicago.

At a community meeting Monday night, about 40 West Side residents and other organizers pledged to put pressure on their elected officials to oppose proposals for 21 new Chicago Public Schools (CPS) charter schools, including two campuses that would target students in the Austin neighborhood.

“We’re going to start holding our elected officials accountable,” said Valerie Leonard with Westsiders Against All School Closings. “We’re going to start distributing notes of the [community] meetings. We’re going to start distributing our experiences with our elected officials and literally naming names and what they’ve done and what they’ve not done.”

As a cost-saving measure last year, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 “underutilized” CPS neighborhood schools, including four in Austin. Now, the board is considering applications for a new Chicago Education Partnership elementary school charter in Austin as well as a Noble Charter School Network high school in the neighboring Belmont Cragin community, among other proposals. The board is expected to take up CPS’ recommendations for new charters at its January 22 meeting.

“We know this is a huge mess that we’re in,” said Ellyson Carter, assistant field director at Action Now. “Our elected officials, you’re not going to tell me that they didn’t know what was going on, and I don’t see them speaking up for the people. They are supposed to represent us ... and they are not doing that.”

CPS says it wants to open the new charters in an effort to help ease overcrowding in neighborhood schools on the Northwest and Southwest sides. A total of nine charter operators are seeking board approval to set up the 21 new campuses in upcoming years, with 13 of them planned to open in fall 2014 and the other eight by 2017. The board has already signed off on 10 other charters that could open in 2014.

But opponents of the proposed charter expansion say the new schools would mean fewer resources for traditional neighborhood schools. That’s because the 21 new charter schools, if all approved, would come with various start-up and additional costs that could amount to $21 million next year alone, a recent analysis by Communities United For Quality Education found. Next school year, CPS faces a more than $900 million deficit.

District officials say “they have about the same deficit that they said they had last year when they needed to close 50 neighborhood schools, so it’s ridiculous,” said Wendy Katten, director of the Raise Your Hand education coalition.

Also, if district-run neighborhood schools lose students to the new charters, they would also see less funding due to CPS’ per-pupil budgeting formula. Under the formula, schools receive $4,140 per student in grades 4 through 8. If an existing neighborhood elementary school loses 20 students to a new charter, that means the school is out $82,800, explained Dwayne Truss, West Side education activist and assistant director of Raise Your Hand.

Meanwhile, many existing neighborhood schools in Austin and across the district have already had their budgets slashed this year to help plug CPS’ $1 billion budget hole.

In Austin for example, Henry H. Nash Elementary had its budget recently cut by more than $180,000, resulting in the loss of 7.5 positions, including teachers and core staff members, Truss said. Austin's neighborhood schools have “been cut to the bone,” he added. “This is what our neighborhood schools are experiencing right now.”

As a whole, neighborhood school budgets across the district lost $100 million in cuts, Katten said. While public school inequity is far “more grotesque” in Austin than in some other parts of the city, "a lot of kids all over the place are not getting a quality education,”  she stressed.

    The meeting's attendees say they fear the proposal from the Noble School Network will especially hurt nearby neighborhood high schools, including Prosser Career Academy, Douglass High School and the Austin High School Campus.

Noble’s proposed ITW David Speer Academy, which would have a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) focus, is set to be located across the street from Prosser on Grand Avenue.

“When we look at the board of education, people who run businesses, they would never welcome a business the same as theirs right across the street,” Leonard said. “Yet, they’re driving their own schools out of business. I think there needs to be better planning.”

At this Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting, Northwest Side Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) is expected to introduce a non-binding resolution that urges the Chicago Board of Education to hold off its decision on any new charters until CPS provides the public with a comprehensive analysis of the proposed charter expansion.

Among other things, the resolution calls for a fiscal analysis of any new charters, details involving “additional capacity needed within each proposed new school site,” a cost-benefit breakdown of all available strategies meant to address overcrowding, and “all available evidence demonstrating why the proposed charter school expansion will lead to improved educational opportunities for Chicago’s students.”

The resolution calls for community hearings to discuss the analysis and asks Local Schools Councils to hold a vote at their schools to “assess the support for the new charter school along with the support for any alternative proposals."

“It is our recommendation that all such input and voting results be reported to the Chicago Board of Education and weighted heavily as they finalize their decisions on any proposed charter school expansion,” the draft resolution states.

Katten said she believes the board of education may reject at least some of the new charter applications. But if that happens, charter operators can appeal application denials to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, an independent charter authority the state legislature created back in 2011. The commission already overruled CPS’ denials for two charter Concept Schools last year, which so far are the only appeals the charter authorizer has granted.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) and State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) have introduced measures in their respective chambers that would revoke the charter commission's authorizing power. Katten said the pending legislation needs much more attention for it to go anywhere in Springfield, and she urged those at the meeting to contact their respective state lawmakers.

Another forum, hosted by Raise Your Hand, about CPS charter expansion and its impact on district schools is scheduled for this Tuesday. The event will be held at Shields Middle School, 2611 W. 48th St., at 6:30 p.m.

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