Hearing attracts charter supporters, some who do not know what they are supporting

December 17, 2013

WBEZ/Linda Lutton
Charter school supporters at a hearing Monday night. The district is considering applications to open 21 new charter schools.

Hundreds of charter school supporters packed a Chicago Public Schools headquarters room for a hearing Monday night that was scheduled to last four and a half hours.

The district is considering applications for 21 new charter schools.

Supporters at the hearing included current charter school students and families, and community residents like Jose Garcia, who told a lone hearing officer, “I am fed up with the public school system, that they’re not improving.” Garcia was there to support a proposal by the charter network Concept Schools, which runs three schools in Chicago and is proposing two more, in Chatham and Chicago Lawn.

Concept runs schools serving 12,000 students in seven states in the Midwest.

But some of the group’s supporters, wearing light blue “Concept Schools” T-shirts, did not seem to know what they were there for.

LUTTON: Excuse me, are you all from a certain community group or anything?

WOMAN: It’s just ah, the Chattam Company—what is it, ah… steam? Steam? [pointing] She should know, right here. She got the piece of paper, right here.

Their confusion made the scene at times reminiscent of the 2012 rent-a-protester scandal, where a political consulting firm with close ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel funded pastors to support the mayor’s schools agenda.The pastors paid protesters to support school closings.

Supporters Monday night said they came on three buses from the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation at 45th and Michigan. The charter schools they advocated for were several miles away, in Chatham and West Lawn.

Michael Vassar works at the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation. He says his own children are grown, but he says his family has ties to Chatham, and they plan to pull younger nieces and nephews out of their current CPS schools to attend the proposed Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) -focused school Concept is proposing--if it’s approved.

Vassar described the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation as “a grassroots organization that works in Bronzeville. We deal with teenagers and at-risk men and women for homes and jobs…. We come out and do grassroots work in the community, and the Concept Schools is one of the agencies we’re working with now.”

A handful of opponents also turned out for the hearings. They included a CPS assistant principal, who didn’t want to give his name.

“If a charter school opens, then the funding that would be coming to the schools in the neighborhood will be going to charter schools instead of to the public schools,” he said.

Jack Elsey, the CPS official who oversees the new schools process, says community input at Monday’s hearing and others will go into the district’s calculus of which charters should open. Originally, the district asked for proposals to help relieve overcrowding on the southwest and northwest sides, but not all the applications stick to those guidelines.

The board of education is expected to vote on new charter schools in January. Any school applications  the district turns down could be appealed to the state’s charter authorization commission for approval. The commission approved two Concept Schools last year that the city had rejected.

Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.