In the echoey vestibule outside the mayor’s office, Jennifer Wilson and a small group of parents gathered on a frigid day last week to plead for their schools.
It was like many past news conferences with spirited moms holding handmade signs. But instead of parents fighting for neighborhood schools facing budget cuts, Wilson and others were standing up for privately run, publicly funded charter schools.
“I am a parent. I know what is best for my child,” Wilson said, explaining how she tried unsuccessfully to make changes in her local district-run school before she transferred her children to the Irving Park campus of Chicago International Charter School.
Charter schools like Wilson’s face a reckoning this week as the Chicago Board of Education, made up of members who are skeptical of charters, considers contract renewals for 49 schools that serve about 28,300 kids, half the city’s charter students. This includes one contract school, which is similar to a charter.
All are guaranteed to be renewed when the board votes on Thursday because there’s a ban on closing schools in Chicago until next year. But most have fought for new deals to stay open up to another 10 years, arguing that would offer stability for their students. Instead, Chicago Public Schools staff are recommending four years or less for all of them, continuing a trend in recent years of short contact renewals.
Proponents of giving parents school choices, including charters, have often clashed with advocates of traditional public schools on how to best run a large urban school system. But for the first time, those who want to focus resources on classic neighborhood schools are in charge of the school district, leaving tensions high and the future particularly uncertain for charters.
Mayor Brandon Johnson comes from a movement that has opposed privatization of government services. He and others believe charters take money away from district-run schools and create unnecessary competition that further depletes the school system’s scarce resources. The mayor’s appointed school board shares his vision of investing in neighborhood schools and shifting the focus away from the system of choice that allows families to bypass neighborhood schools.
When the board announced this intention in December, Board Vice President Elizabeth Todd-Breland took particular aim at charter schools, pointing out that some are having trouble attracting students and are performing poorly.
“The premise of charter schools was that they were to be labs of innovation, they were going to share best practices with other schools and that they could do what the district could do, but better and for less money,” she said. “That hasn’t proven out.”
Todd-Breland acknowledged that some charters are outperforming district-run schools. But for the ones that aren’t, she said the question must be asked: “Why do they exist?”
The board says it won’t completely undo school choice and understands the harm caused by closing schools. As Todd-Breland said, “I want to recognize the system that we have as it exists right now.”
But through this renewal process, board members say they want to more heavily scrutinize charter operators and offer shorter terms if certain criteria aren’t met. Those include high standards for serving disabled students and ensuring sound finances. The CTU is also pushing the same agenda, and unionized teachers at many charters say they’re often stuck arguing in contract negotiations for things the law requires schools to provide.
Some charter advocates counter that it’s wrong for the board to focus on these “compliance” issues.
“The statute is very clear about this. The single most important criterion for evaluation during renewal is whether students are benefiting academically. That should be the question,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “But this board doesn’t seem to want to talk about that at all.”
Charter proponents and traditional public school advocates are both gearing up for the city’s first school board elections in November as a way to change the trajectory of the district.
Broy said this Board of Education shouldn’t be making any drastic changes since it’ll be replaced this time next year.
For that same reason, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jackson Potter said long contract renewals would render the elected board unable to make decisions on charter schools.
“We’re about to get an elected school board that can have public oversight,” he said. “They want to bypass that.”
Charters face same headwinds as traditional public schools
Parents, students and even hip-hop artist Common, the founding partner of the last charter approved by CPS, have given the board an earful over the past few months about the value of charter schools.
At Art In Motion charter school, Common, whose given name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, said he has seen students excel academically, nurture their creativity and find peace.
“So renewing this is very important,” he told the school board last week. “To get the longest term would be a great investment into the future of the South Side and our city, and just our kids. This school is not just a movement, and it definitely is a testament to what we can achieve.”
Charter schools were increasingly controversial by the time Art in Motion was first approved in 2018. The school originally wanted to share a building with Hirsch High School, a neighborhood school in the South Side’s Grand Crossing community.
But Hirsch parents and students protested. Once a school of more than 600 students, Hirsch had dwindled to just over 100, and they said a competitor in the same building would gut it even more. Ultimately, Art in Motion was forced to move to a renovated one-story brick building in South Shore.
As much as anything else, declining enrollment and limited resources in the school system have curtailed Chicago’s charter school movement. In recent years, charter schools have struggled to find kids and have lost enrollment, just like district-run schools.
Of the 49 charter schools up for renewal, only seven are at maximum capacity. Overall, they’re only serving 78% of the students their contracts allow, according to a WBEZ analysis of CPS data. That means lower funding under the district’s current budgeting process.
An analysis of the budgets for the charters up for renewal shows many have more expenses than revenue. They have been getting federal COVID relief funds, which, like district-run schools, has helped even as enrollment falls.
They also depend on private fundraising, which can be tenuous, though it also puts them on par with some North Side CPS schools whose middle-class or affluent parents raise big sums of money to supplement education.
Constance Jones, chief executive officer of the Noble Schools charter network, said her 17 campuses are financially stable. Budget data shows Noble spent more than it received from CPS in 2023, but the network does substantial fundraising and last year billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott gave the network a $16 million unrestricted grant.
Jones acknowledged that some campuses are struggling with enrollment. Yet she said they are in neighborhoods — such as Humboldt Park and North Lawndale — that have lost population and have few high-performing high schools.
“A Noble School must exist; those kids need a high-quality option,” she said. “Often I hear, ‘I didn’t get into a selective enrollment school’ and they will tell me, ‘Mrs. Jones, Noble was the best thing that could have happened to me. If not for Noble I would have left the city.’ ”
Among Noble’s schools, graduation rates range from 80% to 98%. And the state says none of Noble’s campuses have underperforming groups of students.
No Chicago charter school, which admits students by lottery, earned the highest rating by the state, which is given to schools in the top 10% of performance statewide. About 18% of charter schools have students performing in the lowest ratings, compared to 30% of noncharters.
Broy said a 2023 national study found students at charter schools in Chicago do better than students enrolled in traditional public schools.
Charter sold as incubators of new ideas
From the beginning, charter schools were sold as cutting-edge institutions uniquely positioned to quickly respond to the needs of students. Twenty years out, even as they have become more institutionalized, they still make this case.
“Changing the district, in my opinion, is like turning an aircraft carrier,” says JW Kuebler, the principal of Chicago International Charter School-Irving Park. “Charters offer, in my opinion, an opportunity to try things differently.”
Kuebler says this innovation has impacted all areas of his school, from cutting-edge curriculum and teaching, to requiring all staff to take part in deep diversity training, to having an organic caterer provide lunches and replacing Aramark, the behemoth CPS food supplier that is often criticized for processed, poor-tasting food.
At Great Lakes Academy in South Chicago, Executive Director Ebonie Durham says she offers innovative support and investment to the families and children in the area.
The school opened a decade ago in response to a study showing the area was in need of high-quality options. She says 80% of students come from the neighborhood and many walk to school. Much of the leadership also lives nearby, including Durham, who says it’s a three-minute walk from her home to campus.
Like many charter schools, it is in an old Catholic school building. Recently, leaders spent $15 million to connect the school with the church, and they renovated the sanctuary into a cafeteria and gym with impressive high-arched ceilings.
Durham said she dreams of making the school a hub for the community. She said she was bowled over by a visit to a Memphis charter school that was given 100 acres to develop a shopping area and partner with an organization to build housing.
Until she can do something grand like that, she has opened the doors to the residents and let them know they are welcome in the school, that “charter schools are community schools.”
Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times.