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The Suburban Chill Toward Charter Schools

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The Suburban Chill Toward Charter Schools

A meeting about a possible charter school in Waukegan. (WBEZ/Mike Rhee)

For more than a decade, Chicago’s school district has been turning to private companies to help educate its students. That help has come in the form of charter schools. Today, Chicago has 30 such schools, some with multiple campuses. It’s a very different picture in the suburbs, where districts have not embraced charter schools. Only two exist in the suburbs. But right now, a group in Waukegan, Illinois is hoping to change that.

Elizabeth Ochoa says she’s doing everything she can to get people behind a new charter school in Waukegan. That’s why she’s cleaning up at Holy Family Catholic Church. A large meeting about a possible charter school just wrapped up. Ochoa is 19 years old, and a recent graduate of Waukegan High. She says the school didn’t do much to prepare her for college. But the main reason she wants a charter school is she’s a mom to a one-year old daughter.

OCHOA: And I want her to go through a good high school. Not what I went through.
RHEE: What did you go through?
OCHOA: Well, being a single mom, and pregnant in high school, once I came back, teachers pretty much gave up on me.

Waukegan High is mostly Latino. Ochoa says that causes some conflicts between students and teachers. But she saw things could be different. She recently visited a charter school in Chicago. That convinced her a charter could be better for Waukegan students.

OCHOA: You hear a pleasant welcome, not security saying help needed at this room. Or walking into a washroom and feeling like you’re walking into your own washroom and not seeing graffiti on the walls. That’s why I want a new charter school, that’s why I want this charter school.

ambi: crowd

Just a few hours earlier, that church Ochoa was cleaning up was packed with hundreds of people.

EARLEY: I’m ready for a radical change in education in Waukegan. Are you ready?

That’s Reverend Melissa Earley. She’s with a community activist group called Lake County United. Several people at the meeting complained about Waukegan High’s low performance. They mentioned the fact that one in three students don’t graduate.

Some members of the school board were there hear all this. But when it was their turn to speak, they made no promises. Here’s board members June Maguire, Bill Anderson and Mark Hawn.

TAPE: The board needs all of the facts and figures as to how this will affect our school district before we can make a decision...I still have some questions concerning funding, concerning applications that need to be answered...You want me to answer am I going to be for this? I will say this, I am certainly open to the opportunity to improve our situation in our school district.

It’s no surprise the Waukegan board was a little reluctant. A charter school would be free to run things without district approval. That’s even though the district would have to pay.

The Waukegan teachers union is pushing back, too. It dropped out of Lake County United shortly after this meeting.

Now, there aren’t many people in the suburbs who have gone through this process, to explain all this resistance. But Larry Fuhrer can.

FUHRER: You’re actually going to your local district and saying to that district, ‘I think I can do the job of educating children better than you can, give me a charter.’ Which is kind of a foolish proposition.

Fuhrer heads one of the two charter schools in Chicago’s suburbs. Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove, to the West. It just opened last fall. Furher says the road was rough. The district never opened a charter school before. So he says they had no model to work from.

FUHRER: The largest and most difficult obstacle is that almost every case outside the city of Chicago is a new case.

Fuhrer predicts it’ll be difficult to open a charter school in Waukegan. And he’s got a point, if you look at the numbers. Illinois law allows up to 15 charter schools in the suburbs. Thirteen of those slots have been open for years.

VALENTINE: The charter school does divert some public money away from the regular school district.

That’s Lise Valentine. She’s vice-president of the Civic Federation. It’s a government research group that did a study last year on charter schools outside of Chicago. Valentine says school districts are tight on funds as it is. That’s without having to divert money to charter schools.

VALENTINE: The open question is how much of a burden is too much of a burden. You know, for a school district that is not interested in school choice, they will tell you that diverting even one-percent of operating revenues is too much.

And the Illinois Supreme Court has said that’s perfectly OK. But Valentine has problems with districts holding back money. For one, she says charters typically divert a small percentage of a district’s budget. She also says communities that want a choice of schools should get it. Valentine says at least some of the people in Waukegan are asking for that choice.

She says even if the community doesn’t get the charter school, it’s sending a clear message to the district. That it’s dissatisfied with the current system, and it has a vision for what a better school might be.

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