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Chicago Charter Schools Could Be Collateral Damage In Teacher Contract

Chicago Public Schools is promising not to add any charter schools for at least the next two years. But Illinois has a state commission that can also approve charter schools. This means that Chicago could soon have a set of schools not controlled by the school district. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports.

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In this photo taken Feb. 16, 2012, a student at Noble Street College Prep does class works at the school in Chicago. Under an unconventional policy drawing fire from some parents and advocacy groups and sparking a debate over fairness, Noble Network, which runs 10 charter public high schools heralded as a model for the city by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, charges students $5 for detentions stemming from infractions that can include chewing gum and having untied shoelaces. School officials say the fees offset the cost of running the detention program and help keep small problems from becoming big ones.

In this photo taken Feb. 16, 2012, a student at Noble Street College Prep does class works at the school in Chicago. Under a tentative agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools, networks like Noble would not be allowed to open more schools.

M. Spencer Green

Charter school advocates said they are disappointed the tentative agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools would cap the growth of publicly-funded, privately-run schools.

It is a dramatic turn of events. Chicago was once a leader in opening up new charter schools. About 55,000 Chicago students attend the city’s charter schools -- about 14 percent of the total student population, according to 2015-2016 CPS data.

Under the new tentative agreement, there would be no increase in the number of students in charters, and no increase in the number of charter schools authorized by CPS over the four years of the contract.

Yet five charter school operators have pending proposals with CPS to open seven schools. CPS did not respond to questions about what they plan to do with the active proposals.

The tentative agreement still needs to be ratified by the full membership of the teachers union.

Mike Milkie, who runs Noble Network of Charter Schools, criticized what he called an arbitrary cap on new charter schools.

“CPS should pursue ways to expand, not limit, access to high quality schools of all types, including charters” Milkie said in a statement. “The decision to include this cap as a political concession in a teachers’ contract is disappointing and mars otherwise excellent education results in Chicago.”

But, as advocates point out, this does not mean the city won’t be getting any new charter schools.

“In many ways this collective bargaining provision changes the process by which charter schools will be approved, but it doesn’t stop the creation of new charter schools in the city,” said Greg Richmond, President and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “All CPS did was give up its seat at the table and leaves those decisions to the state commission.”

In 2011, state lawmakers created the Illinois Charter School Commission, the state’s first independent authorizer of charter schools. At least 16 other states have independent authorizers.

In the agreement, CPS promises to work with the Chicago Teachers Union to try to curtail the power of the commission. But such legislation has been in play for two years and has not been successful.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is a staunch supporter of school choice and charter schools.

Already the commission has shown it is willing to step on decisions made by CPS. This year, in an unprecedented move, it overturned the decision by the Board of Education to close three charter schools.

Under Illinois law, charter school operators must first submit their proposal to the school district. The school district then has 75 days to respond. If it does not respond, or it turns down the proposal, the charter operator can appeal to the commission.

“The only silver lining in the situation is that the commission still exists and can receive and act on charter school proposals in Chicago,” Richmond said.

Richmond oversaw the opening of the first charter schools in CPS and continued working in the district for a decade. He also served as the first chairman of the Illinois Charter School Commission.

Richmond said the school district is giving up a lot of control by conceding the opening of charter schools to the state. CPS has a process in which it asks for proposals for specific types of charter schools. In the past, the school district has specified it would like proposals from schools with dual language programs or charter schools that want to go into neighborhoods with overcrowded schools.

Now, Richmond said CPS will have no control over what charters are opened in the city.

The commission looks at quality and financial stability when deciding whether to approve a charter school, but does not necessarily consider issues of demand.

There’s also a financial penalty to CPS when charter schools are opened in the city under the commission. The commission sets how much charter schools should get for each students and then subtracts it from the amount of state aid it gives to the school district. This year, the state’s tuition rate is $12,266.

CTU Lawyer Robert Bloch said the teachers union is not against charters, but over the past decade charter schools have siphoned students away from neighborhood schools, which has diluted programs at neighborhood schools.

He stressed the provision limits the growth of charter schools, but does not shut any existing charters down.

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