The proportion of privately run Chicago public schools to increase

December 11, 2012

At the same time Chicago Public Schools says it needs to close down schools, maybe as many as 100, it’s planning to open brand new ones.

In a promotional video for a new high school called Intrinsic, illustrations of the city’s skyline and the EL tracks swirl around cartoon students. The students tout their teachers’ credentials and brag about the projects they’re working on.

“The teachers at Intrinsic are great,” says the cartoon boy. “They’ve worked at schools like Walter Payton and Whitney Young.”

Intrinsic is not open yet. It’s one of at least 17 new schools the district wants to open next fall. Fourteen charter and contract schools, run by outside groups and three district-run high schools. (See complete list at the end of this article.)

CPS leaders say 136 schools are half empty. Most of those schools are on the south and west sides of the city. School officials argue it doesn’t make sense to keep running those schools, because it costs money to keep the lights on and school resources get spread too thin.

They say if they consolidate, or “right-size,” they can spend more money on the buildings they do keep open—adding air-conditioning, art and music, all the things people say are missing right now.

But why would the district open schools when it says it has too many already?

“We also need to be strategic and ensure that we are doing everything we can to immediately expand access to high quality school options for parents in every community,” said CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

Carroll also points to areas of the city where classrooms are overcrowded—the heavily Latino north and west sides of the city. She says CPS may need to build or open new schools in those areas.

Phyllis Lockett echoed Carroll’s point about quality. She runs New Schools for Chicago, which has raised more than $30 million to help CPS gradually open charter schools every year for the past decade.

“Saving dollars cannot be the only solution, you’ve got to focus on quality,” Lockett said.

While Lockett equates new schools with quality, the fact is, the new schools the city has created over the last decade have had mixed success.

Some people have said that closing traditional schools and opening charter schools is actually about privatizing education—not about quality or enrollment or anything else.

It’s true that if CPS closes dozens of traditional schools and then opens charters, the proportion of public schools run by private entities jumps significantly.

Think about the math. Right now, 14 percent of CPS’s 681 schools are privately run charter and contract schools.

If the district closes 100 schools, and then opens 60 new charters in the next five years, the percentage of privately run schools could jump up to 27 percent. In a grant application to the Gates Foundation, CPS leaders said they planned to open 100 new schools in the next five years, 60 of them charters. Carroll has said that number was just an estimate based on past growth.

Still, a number of charter leaders have big expansion plans.

“I think that number ought to grow,” said Juan Rangel. He runs the United Neighborhood Organization, which operates one of the city’s largest charter school networks.

“We’ve been at this for 15 years now, and if anybody told me we would be in the place we are today back in 1997, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Rangel said. “But here we are, and so I’m really hopeful that in five years the school district will look very different than it does today.”

UNO has more aggressive expansion plans. Rangel said he hopes to open five new schools a year for the next five years, bringing UNO’s total to more than 30 schools.

But he’s not alone. The district’s biggest high school charter network, the Noble Network of Charter Schools, wants to open two new high schools a year for the next four years, bringing its total to right around 20. 

And at least four national operators—Rocketship Education, Basis Schools, Concept Schools, and Charter Schools USA-- applied to open schools here next fall, according to Illinois Network of Charter Schools executive director Andrew Broy. 

The new schools that have opened in the last decade draw students away from their home schools, even though overall public school enrollment has dropped just 6 percent. The Chicago Teachers Union has said that’s contributed to the problem of “underutilization” in so many CPS schools.

It’s unclear how the district will prevent home schools from becoming under-enrolled as they plan to open more new schools.

“Part of what Chicago is really suffering from is they don’t have a long range plan,” said Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century Schools Fund, a non-profit that studies how school districts manage their real estate.

CPS’s Carroll says school leaders plan to sell off the empty buildings, which Filardo warns could be a shortsighted move.

“Chicago could find itself in really a pickle, if it does not retain some of its public infrastructure,” Filardo said. “You don’t have age-level enrollment projections, population projections, you don’t have a master plan. Do you want 75 percent to be neighborhood Chicago public school based and 25 percent private? Do you want it 50-50? I mean where are you going?”

If CPS does not put together a plan to address those questions, Filardo says, it could find itself in a similar situation five years from now, even if enrollment holds steady:  With too many schools—and a big fight on its hands. 

Schools slated to open Fall 2013:

New SchoolGrades servedApproved or Pending
Chicago Collegiate Charter School4-12pending 
The Orange SchoolK-8pending 
Foundations College Prep6-12pending 
Intrinsic Schools6-12pending 
Camelot alternative studentspending 
Crane (Medical) HS9-12approved
Back of the Yards HS9-12approved
Disney II HS9-12pending 
Marine Military Academy (expansion)7-8pending 
Rickover Naval Academy (expansion)7-8pending 
UNO Soccer Academy HS9-12approved
UNO elementary campusK-8approved
UNO elementary campusK-8approved
UNO elementary campusK-8approved
Noble - Orange campus9-12approved
Noble - Crimson campus9-12approved
Christopher HousePK-8approved
LEARN-7th campusK-8approved
LEARN-8th campusK-8approved