The Impact of Charter Schools on Chicago School Reform
Third in a Series of Essays on the Charter School Movement
By Dorothy Strang
The Chicago Public School System pays an estimated $300 to $700 million per year to support charter schools, yet CPS receives no additional revenue to support them. As Dorothy Strang explains in this essay, the expansion of charter schools stretches CPS’ meager budget for traditional schools even thinner. Though charter schools are not the only factor in the on-going fiscal woes of CPS, Strang points out that they are clearly a significant one.
No Such Thing as “Public Money” for Public Schools
Across the country, battles rage daily over charter schools. Advocates, working through state legislatures, city governments and local communities, promote charters as an important school choice for families and a chance for “entrepreneurial educators” to flourish. At the federal level, the Department of Education calls school choice “education freedom,” and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declares that there is no such thing as “public money.” It is only what individuals have earned. She and other supporters of charters say they are “public schools” because members of the public attend them.
Opponents insist that charters are not public schools. Charters have no public oversight; they lack accountability and transparency regarding budgets and operating policies. Though ostensibly open to all, many charters require applications, and reports abound of charter schools’ reluctance to admit students with learning challenges. These resisters contend that charters are being established not to collaborate with public schools, or to compete with them, but to supplant them. At tax-payer expense.
The Debate in Chicago
This debate plays out in Chicago, too, but in a local scenario. Over the past two decades of financial austerity, the Chicago Public School district (CPS) has closed 125 neighborhood schools and opened 149 new ones, 108 of which are charters. The school closings have made national headlines, and they have disrupted South and West Side African-American and Latinx communities. To understand the impact of charter schools on Chicago’s contentious history of school reform, it is important to know what charter schools are, how they operate, and what role they have played—and continue to play—in local school choice and school closures.
What Is a Charter School?
Some people confuse charter schools with independent or private schools, which charge tuition. Charters are free, funded with the same tax dollars that fund traditional public schools. On the CPS website, charter schools are listed among almost a dozen district options, including neighborhood, selective enrollment, and magnet schools. Roughly 100 of Chicago’s charter schools are clustered into 12 networks: Chicago International, KIPP, Noble, Perspectives, and Youth Connection among them. Chicago has no for-profit charter schools. Only two states allow them. But the private boards of many charters, especially of the networks, contract out school services like management, maintenance, security, and transportation to for-profit companies.
Where Does the Term “Charter” Come From?
A school “charter” is a legislative contract with the state, the school district or some other authorizing entity. The charter exempts the school from certain state and local rules and regulations, including recognizing unions. In exchange for its autonomy, the school must meet accountability standards set in the charter. Most state and district authorizers limit the number of available charters. When legislators passed the Illinois Charter Law in 1996, Chicago’s original cap was 15; the total number now is 118. Raising the cap is always an issue, often more political than educational.
Who Authorizes and Oversees the Charter Schools?
Chicago school charters must be authorized initially and approved for renewal (every 5-7 years) by the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE), but each school’s day-to-day operations are overseen by a separate independent board. Names of a charter school’s or network’s board members are hard, sometimes even impossible, to find, either in the CPS listing or on its own website. Whereas CPS posts exhaustive on-line material, most charter schools’ budgets, policies, practices, and evaluations are not made public. This lack of transparency is a major reason why charter opponents call them “publicly funded private schools.”
When Did Charter Schools First Appear?
The history of charter schools begins in the late 1980’s, when longtime AFT president Albert Shanker built on an earlier idea from UMass Amherst professor Ray Budde, proposing a new concept for teaching at-risk students: collaborative schools-within-schools, run by innovative teachers, who would secure a “charter” from their local school board for a fixed period of time. The nation’s first charter law was passed by the Minnesota legislature in 1991, and the first charter school was opened in Winona, MN the following year. Currently, there are about 7,000 charter schools nationwide in 43 states and the District of Columbia.
Who Can Enroll In A Charter School?
Charter schools are open to all, but students cannot simply show up on the school house steps. They have to apply. If a school receives more applications than available spaces, selection is by random lottery. In Chicago, as in many large cities, charters enroll mostly low-income students of color. According to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, charter enrollment in Chicago is 96% African-American or Latinx. 88% of charter school students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. CPS enrollment, in contrast, is 36% African American, 47% Hispanic, and 11% white.
How Many Charter Schools in Chicago?
According to student census numbers released in early November, the CPS system educates 355,000 students in 660 schools. 130 of those schools are charters, educating roughly 54,000 Chicago children. That’s about 10% of elementary students and 25% of high school students. Nationally, charters enroll only about 6% of school-age children, but in big cities charters have flourished.
The Growth of Chicago Charter Schools
Chicago charter schools have opened and expanded as the state raised the cap. The first seven charters opened in 1997. Three of them—Chicago International, Perspectives, and Youth Connection—continue to educate children. By 2000, the number of charters had increased to 16, prompting two of them to merge to maintain the cap of 15.
In 2001, the Gates Foundation made the first of its $86 million grants to Chicago non-profits and charters. Two years later, the state increased the charter cap, granting 15 new charters for Chicago, bringing the total to 30. That same year, the charter networks ASPIRA and KIPP opened their first schools. In 2009, the state raised the cap again, and Chicago’s total was 70.
Information about the current cap is proving difficult to find. However, since the number of current charters stands at 130, a cap seems irrelevant and may explain the item in CTU’s recent contract agreement that calls for a cap not on charter schools but on their enrollment.
How Are Charter Schools Funded?
At the federal level, the Charter Schools Program, established in 1994, reports it has provided $3.3 billion to fund the start-up, replication, and expansion of charter schools, thereby creating 40% of the nation’s charter schools. Additionally, private foundations, like the Walton Family Fund on the political right and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the left, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in charter schools.
Locally, while the CBOE has no oversight of charter schools, CPS is charged with funding them. As of 2013, the district uses Student-Based Budgeting (SBB) to determine the resources a school receives. It is a per-pupil funding allocation that is weighted by grade level and several “diverse learner” categories. Basic funding for charters is also determined by the SBB formula. In addition, they receive supplemental CPS funds for various operating costs. For example, if a charter school rents a building not owned by CPS, it receives a yearly $1500 per student. Charters renting CPS-owned facilities pay the district $1/year.
The School Funding Formulas in Appendix B of the CPS FY2020 budget are complex, but amongst the weeds is a fairly straightforward comparison of per-pupil funding:
District school base rate: $4,506.93 Modified charter rate: $5,350.16
It’s easy to multiply that charter rate by the 54,000 students enrolled in charter schools and conclude that CPS spends roughly $288,900,000 each fiscal year on charter schools. A more sophisticated source, however, puts CPS financial obligation to the district’s charter schools much higher, at $700 million/year.
Since CPS receives no additional revenues to fund these schools, charter expansion means the district’s meagre budget is stretched even thinner over the traditional public schools. Though charter schools are not the only factor in the on-going fiscal woes of CPS, they are clearly a significant one.