Emanuel welcomes out-of-town charter schools

Chicago signs Gates Foundation "compact," agrees to work more collaboratively with charters.

December 8, 2011

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel put out the welcome mat for out-of-state charter schools Tuesday.

“I want all the charter operators who don’t yet operate in the City of Chicago to see this as an opportunity to now look at Chicago as a place to set up shop,” Emanuel told school leaders and charter representatives from across the country.

Emanuel said Chicago lags behind other big cities in creating charters.

About 8 percent of elementary school students here and 20 percent of Chicago public high school students are currently enrolled in charters, which are run by private entities but receive public funding. Charter schools are typically given more autonomy to innovate than district schools.

The mayor’s comments came as Chicago Public Schools joins 13 other districts nationwide in signing a “compact” with its charter schools. Chicago’s compact commits the district to “ensuring that funding for a student’s education will be equitable whether enrolled in a charter school or in a CPS-operated school.”

The charters have long complained they’re underfunded, while charter opponents accuse the district of favoring charters.  Two years ago, in the midst of a budget crisis, CPS cut the per pupil allotment to charter schools by 4 percent. It hasn’t been restored.

In the new compact, the district also commits to help charters find school buildings, which has been another flashpoint for conflict. Illinois doesn’t require districts to provide facilities for charter schools, but charter providers say that means money destined for instruction has to be diverted to pay for buildings.

The compacts are being pushed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates wants schools to share innovations and best practices and increase collaboration between district schools and charters. 

Signing on to Gates’ “District-Charter Collaboration Compact” is worth $100,000 to Chicago Public Schools now and the chance to compete for $40 million more.

Michael Milkie runs Chicago’s biggest charter high school network.

“[The compact] creates a climate I think both in terms of funding, in terms of facilities that really has corrected some of the struggles I think charters have had in the past,” said Milkie.

The changes could encourage large charter schools operating in other states to come to Chicago. KIPP schools, for instance, which educate over 32,000 students in 20 states and Washington, D.C., will be expanding here. The network is taking over one of Chicago’s coveted “replicating charters,” which allows school operators to open multiple campuses under a single charter. The charter was previously held by a low-performing school that closed its doors.

Chicago Public Schools says 84 percent of the city’s 113 charter and contract schools signed onto the compact (though 23 of them are alternative schools that operate under a charter umbrella). The compact also calls for district and charter schools to adhere to the same accountability standards.

“Now we’re going to be compared in the most transparent way,” Milkie said. “We’re going to have to up our game and district schools are going to have to up their games, and I think all the students will be better off.”

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said charter schools were at the table with the school district to write the compact. He said both sides had to compromise to come up with the document.

One of the hardest provisions for charters to accept was a commitment to a common school enrollment and application system, Broy said. Each charter currently runs its own application process; but that means parents can end up filling out dozens of forms to find a school for their children.

In a letter encouraging Chicago charter school operators to sign onto the compact, schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard said he wants to quell any “lingering concern about charter autonomy.”

“I understand that the past few years have been difficult for the Chicago charter community, but this Compact represents the beginning of a new model...,” wrote Brizard.