Chicago charter school leaders and families are breathing somewhat muted sighs of relief after the Board of Education renewed their contracts — but with shorter terms that leave their futures uncertain.
Dozens of students, parents and officials from 11 charter operators that run 49 schools packed into Chicago Public Schools headquarters to make their case and hear their fate at Thursday’s school board meeting.
After long discussions and public comments, the board voted to approve all the schools for terms between one and four years. Most received three or four years with conditions like pledging not to suspend students, shoring up their offerings for students who are learning English or rectifying problems with services to students in special education.
Chicago High School for the Arts was renewed for two years and Instituto del Progreso Latino, which runs an alternative school and a high school focused on health sciences, only one year. Instituto is also facing a threatened strike early next month by its teachers and staff.
Charter schools have faced increasing scrutiny and shorter renewal terms in recent years as calls grow for accountability, particularly around special education and finances. And there’s added tension this year under Mayor Brandon Johnson’s appointed school board, which last month directed the school district to reprioritize funding traditional neighborhood schools and shift away from its heavy focus on school choice.
At the start of the meeting, board President Jianan Shi sought to reassure families that schools would not close as a result of the board’s new focus on neighborhood schools. The intent is to better resource schools that have long faced underfunding and cuts so that families have more viable choices, he said — an idea that’s informed by years of community advocacy.
Vice President Elizabeth Todd-Breland added: “There is no call to close selective enrollment or magnet schools,” Todd-Breland said. “However, we do want to note that it’s true that these [schools] do get additional funding to support their programs.”
Later in the public comment portion of the meeting, Constance Jones, chief executive officer of the Noble Schools charter network’s 17 campuses, said charter families and educators deserve assurances that they won’t have their doors shut.
“You said that selective enrollment schools and magnet schools wouldn’t be touched after the CPS resolution threatened school choice,” Jones told the board. “Why haven’t charters been mentioned?
“Charter families deserve the same assurances that were given to selective enrollment and magnet schools,” she said. “Our operational score does not paint a full picture of our performance or our impact. When a district school falls short, you offer support. When a charter school falls short, you question our existence.”
Several public speakers asked the district and board what it would take for a school to receive a longer renewal term, closer to the maximum 10 years allowed by law.
CPS officials said schools would only get a 10-year renewal if they exceeded expectations in every category, including academics, financials, special education and bilingual services. To get a five-year renewal, they would need to at least meet expectations in key areas.
The special-education standards look at the extent to which students with disabilities participate in the school. And both the special-education and English Language Learner standards look at compliance in providing the services and support.
Many of the charters are struggling in these areas. Only eight of 49 schools (seven LEARN schools and the Montessori of Englewood) are meeting standards in special education. Only two are meeting standards for English learners, but both of them have virtually no students in those programs.
The district also looks at how much the school is suspending and expelling students. In the past, charter schools have been criticized for strict codes of conducts that led to students being suspended and expelled way more than at traditional schools.
Noble charters, the largest operator in Chicago, especially came under fire in the past for high expulsion rates and for charging students for demerits, a policy the operator says it changed a decade ago. CPS officials say Noble still does not meet standards in terms of discipline.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he has not heard charter leaders trying to skirt accountability. But he said a decade-long renewal would take the district’s strongest oversight measure out of its hands.
Board member Michelle Morales said she wants to see special-education and bilingual services carry a heavy weight in this process.
Todd-Breland added that charters inherently warrant greater accountability.
“I still maintain that as a private operator getting public money, there should be a higher level of scrutiny,” she said, noting that some operators have great track records while others don’t, and it’s the board’s responsibility to keep an eye on their operations.
She pointed to success stories like Legal Prep and LEARN, which received short renewal terms the last cycle, partly because they were suspending and expelling too many kids. They’ve since changed their practices and received longer terms.
“Renewals is the only time for accountability,” Todd-Breland said.
An earlier version of this story did not make clear that Noble Schools stopped charging students for demerits in 2014.