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Chicago Seeks More Charter Schools

Despite declining student enrollment and dozens of dramatically under-enrolled schools, Chicago is seeking potential new charter schools for the city.  

In a Request for Proposals issued Wednesday, CPS says it’s looking for dual language schools, “Next Generation” schools that would blend technology and traditional teaching, and—in a first—it wants a “trauma-informed school,” where staff would get training to support students with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or exposure to trauma.

The district is prepared to give charters that already run schools approval for up to four additional campuses. And it’s poised to grant approvals now for campuses that wouldn’t open for several years, to allow more time for planning a school’s opening, the district says in a press release.

In recent years, the district had named Neighborhood Advisory Councils where community members could give input into charter proposals. Those are now scrapped, saving roughly $170,000, CPS says. Instead, charter schools themselves will “directly engage residents in obtaining the support of their desired school community,” according to the release.

“It looks like they're making it even less democratic,” said Wendy Katten, director of the parent group Raise Your Hand, which has had members serve on the advisory councils.

Katten says many considered the NACs “flawed” because CPS seemed frequently to ignore the advice of the councils, but “at least it was an opportunity to look at the proposal, to really scrutinize it as a community. To take (that) away—and to have the charter operators do the community engagement—that’s even more of a sham than what currently has existed. The real question is, our city needs a massive debate about opening any kind of new schools in a city that has just hemorrhaged students,” said Katten.

A CPS spokesperson providing written responses “on background” said CPS will host public hearings on any charters that make it through the application process. The applications will be viewable online, and a “feedback portal” is being set up for community members to share their views. A Board of Education “questions and comments” page already solicits public opinion, the spokesperson noted.

Charters will be required to provide evidence of student demand and community support, according to the RFP.

CPS has said it is required by state law to annually post an RFP for charter schools. In fact, state law allows for school districts to issue RFPs, but does not require it. Asked about the distinction, a CPS spokesperson replied, “a comprehensive RFP process is the best way to set rigorous application standards and ensure all proposals submitted for review are comprehensive.”

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool says the goal of the RFP is to “increase access to quality options in Chicago….Our thorough vetting process requires applicants to demonstrate they will meet a need for additional quality seats and have community support, and we will only move forward with applicants that meet our high standards,” Claypool said in the district’s release.

Charters have been controversial. The Chicago Teachers Union opposes them; the union’s membership is dropping as students shift to the charter sector.

Even as overall enrollment in the school district has been declining, enrollment in the charter sector has increased. That has been a double whammy for traditional public schools, since a school’s funding is determined by the number of pupils who go there. Some schools in Chicago have so few students they have had trouble paying for teachers and a basic education. Under-enrollment was the school district’s initial justification for the closure of 50 schools in 2013, the biggest round of school closures in recent U.S. history.

Overall, around 14 percent of district children attend charter schools, but the percentage is much higher at the high school level. Currently, 24 percent of traditional Chicago public high school students attend charters (that’s not counting alternative schools for dropouts, where nearly all students are in charters or privately run for-profit schools).

Chicago’s school board voted to close four charter schools this year for what it says was poor performance. The schools dispute that characterization; three have filed appeals with the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

Linda Lutton is a reporter for WBEZ covering Education. Follow her at @WBEZeducation on Twitter.

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