Charter Schools’ Role in Chicago School Reform
Last in a Series of Essays on the Charter School Movement
By Dorothy Strang
The growth of Chicago charter schools from 7 in 1997 to more than 180 today, while perhaps not explicitly planned, was intentional. City leaders have allowed charters to play a lead role in Chicago Public School reform efforts that began in the mid 1980’s with President Ronald Reagan’s warning of “the rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s public schools.
His call for “educational accountability practices” initiated a new era of corporate-style assessments of education, where a school’s value rested not on teacher-student and school-community relationships but on data that could be counted: graduation rates, test scores, and attendance levels. Schools with low scores on these metrics were labeled “under-performing.”
Assessing schools through the efficiency lens of business is now so pervasive that the public can’t remember any other way to determine the quality of a school. Most public and charter schools, especially charter networks, organize and rate their schools by these principles of “accountability.”
Only three years after Reagan’s warning about mediocrity, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett called Chicago’s schools “the worst in the nation.” This pronouncement set the stage for a series of school closings and openings that has characterized CPS reform measures ever since and put charter schools front and center.
From “Underperforming” to “Underutilized”
While CPS may not have been in control of new charters opening, they were in charge of particular schools closing. To justify school closures, CPS has tried different enforcing policies with different terminology.
In 1996, CEO Paul Vallas put 109 schools on probation as “underperforming,” an early use of accountability metrics to determine school quality. In 2004, Mayor Daley announced Renaissance 10 (Ren10), pledging to close dozens of “underperforming” schools and promising to open 100 new “schools of choice,” an early use of that term, which, for the most part, means charters.
By 2013, the policy used to justify school closings was “right-sizing,” and terminology changed from “underperforming” to “underutilized.” CPS set the “threshold for ideal enrollment” at 30 students per classroom, a number widely viewed as perhaps fiscally important but not educationally sound. With an “efficiency range” between 20% below and 20% above that ideal, a school with 24 students per classroom was designated “underutilized” and therefore subject to closure.
“Underutilized” schools were found to be “under-resourced,” as well. An independent investigation by Apples to Apples, part of Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group for public schools, found that using the same “ideal enrollment” metric, 47% of the city’s charter schools would be classified as “underutilized,” with 11,000 empty seats.
That was the year Mayor Emanuel created a firestorm of protest by closing 49 “underutilized” schools, mainly on the South and West Sides in low-income African American and Latino neighborhoods. Because they are not governed by the district, no “underutilized” charter school was on the closure list.
Perhaps CPS thought these new school designations were more acceptable to those communities than “underperforming,” but researcher Eve L. Ewing sees it differently. In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, she describes an open board meeting where CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett used these terms to justify closing the 49 schools.
The terms prompt Ewing to wonder who is responsible for the under-resourcing and underutilization of these schools? Some unnamed outside force or the CEO herself, whose responsibility it is, after all, to oversee the success of all district schools. Several charters were designated as “welcoming schools” for displaced students, but of course no charter school was closed.
Closing and Opening Schools in the Same Neighborhoods
At the same time these “underutilized” schools were being closed in neighborhoods where families depended on them for community stability, CPS opened or authorized new schools, often in the same neighborhoods. As documented in Closed By Choice, between 2000 and 2015, CPS closed 125 neighborhood schools and opened 149 new ones; 108 of them were—and still are—charters.
This scenario of closing and opening schools grows even more difficult to justify when it is viewed against the backdrop of a declining school-age population. From 2000 to 2015, Chicago’s school-age population declined by 6.5%, nearly 30,000 students. Recent census figures show that the number of school-age children is still declining, especially in African American communities, though not as precipitously.
Closed By Choice maps the location of those 108 new charters. Most of them opened in low-income African American and Latinx neighborhoods whose population loss is rated either “moderate” or “high.” In addition, these new charters are within walking distance of existing neighborhood schools. At a time when the CPS budget cannot adequately resource neighborhood schools, how can charter schools be allowed to set up shop so close by?
Choice vs. Insecurity, Profit and Choice or the Common Good
It is impossible to view the opening of those new charter schools dispassionately. Defenders will say these charters provide choice for low-income families and healthy competition for nearby traditional schools.
Opponents will say these charters, funded by CPS, deepen the “educational insecurity” of children in these neighborhoods and rob resources from community schools. Both sides might well ask: Will charter schools eventually supplant public schools in these neighborhoods?
If they do, whose fault will it be? “Entrepreneurial educators” who want to turn a profit? CPS for failing to plan the location of the charters it authorizes? The public for favoring parental “school choice” over the common good of the wider community?
Hard to say. Plenty of fault to spread around. Plenty of fault-finding to keep the debate fired up. Time for a moratorium on new charters.