Just months after closing 50 schools, Chicago issues RFP for more charter schools

District seeks to use charters to address overcrowding problems on the Northwest and Southwest sides.

August 13, 2013

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
A classroom at Peck Elementary on the Southwest Side, where the district hopes charter schools can alleviate overcrowding.

Just two and a half months after a historic vote to close 50 schools, Chicago is laying the groundwork to bring more charter schools to the city.

Without fanfare, the district posted an official “request for proposals” to its website Monday that invites charter schools to apply to open shop in what the school district has identified as priority neighborhoods—large swaths of the Southwest and Northwest sides.

Those heavily Latino areas have struggled with overcrowded schools.

The district wants what it’s calling “next generation” charter schools, which could combine online and traditional teaching. It also wants proposals for arts integration charter schools and dual language charters. 

Chicago is coming off a painful process to close 50 schools it said were underutilized; the district last December determined that half its schools are underenrolled. District spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Tuesday in an email that “while there were significant population declines in some parts of the city, there were also increases in other parts of the city.... There are many schools that are overcrowded or are facing overcrowding and we need to address that issue as we do any other.”

The Chicago Teachers Union and others have argued for years that school closures are about making way for charters and weakening the union.

“We are not surprised at all by this,” said union president Karen Lewis . “We were called conspiracy theorists, and then here is the absolute proof of what the intentions are…. The district has clearly made a decision that they want to push privatization of our public schools.”

The district has been slowly shifting students to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Around 13 percent of district students—and more than 20 percent of the district’s high school students— are educated in charter schools. Teachers at charters cannot be represented by the Chicago Teachers Union.

CPS does not specify how many new charters it would like to open. Districts are required by state law to consider proposals for new charters every year, and CPS has run an annual RFP for at least the last decade.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says this year’s RFP represents a “shift in strategy.” In the past, the district named neighborhoods that lacked high performing schools as priority areas for charters.

“Eight or nine years ago the focus was getting options schools in places that weren’t served well—traditional West and South side neighborhoods—and certainly some of the charter school growth in those areas was a result of that focus," says Broy. “Now we see a focus that shifts a little bit to different parts of the city where overcrowding has been a real issue going back 10, 12, 15 years.” 

This is also the first time the district has named specific school models as priorities.

“CPS is expressing a preference for models that they don’t currently have,” says Broy, who adds that his group had input into the RFP. “I think it’s really an RFP that seeks to add to what we offer in the city, while also providing an avenue for existing proven models to think about how they might want to expand.”

Broy said a key challenge for any charter operator that applies will be finding an appropriate facility on the built-up Northwest or Southwest side. 

In a statement sent late afternoon Tuesday, the district said its goal with the RFP  "is to seek out potential proposals to create more high quality school options for parents and this is merely one step in that process.”