PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday April 26th, 2013, 5:36pm

A Look At How Charters May Fare If CPS School Actions Are Approved

The Chicago Public Schools’ plan to shakeup and shut down a record-breaking number of neighborhood schools in June will likely lead to further charter school expansion in the city, education policy experts and activists predict.

The Chicago Public Schools’ plan to shakeup and shut down a record-breaking number of neighborhood schools in June will likely lead to further charter school expansion in the city, education policy experts and activists predict.

“There is definitely causality in terms of closing neighborhood schools and opening charters,” said Kenneth Saltman, a professor at DePaul University’s College of Education.

CPS is faced with a $1 billion budget deficit and wants to close 54 schools, consolidate 11 and turnaround another six to address the district’s reported underutilization problem.

Some of CPS’ planned actions also include what Saltman referred to as a “swap switcher,” where one school is switched to another building.

Wentworth Elementary on the South Side is one example. It isn’t on the school closure list, but CPS is proposing that it move to the current Altgeld Elementary building about a mile away. Altgeld would close and the building would be renamed Wentworth.

“It’s hard to see that achieves anything other than justifying doing things like getting new contracts or threatening the union,” said Saltman, an expert on the privatization of public education.

It’s become a national trend to replace neighborhood schools with contracted ones, with chartering being central to the movement, Saltman explained.

Proponents of charters say the schools, which are independently run but receive public money and often raise private funds through foundations and philanthropists, provide families with alternative school choices.

Although charters were originally intended to be independent, alternative school models that would provide teacher autonomy, they’ve essentially been “corporately hijacked” in the past 15 years, Saltman said, shifting control away from neighborhoods, Local School Councils, teachers and unions to charter operators.

As Saltman pointed out, Chicago has been at the forefront of efforts to privatize public education. 

“It’s a very deliberate union-busting strategy,” said Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative. “It’s not actually about the needs of the children and the education of the children, but it is about a steady erosion of bargaining rights of teachers in those neighborhoods.”

Under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Renaissance 2010 plan of 2004 used “really aggressive” efforts to close low-performing neighborhood schools and charter them, Saltman explained.

The plan looked to close about 60 schools and reopen 100 new schools by 2010, with at least two-thirds as charter or contract schools.

“What Rahm Emanuel is doing actually makes what was done under Daley and Arne Duncan seem like very little,” Saltman said.

This recent round of school closings is “much more aggressive,” he added.

“It’s doing much more in a shorter amount of time to close schools and to expand chartering,” Saltman noted.

Charters typically don’t receive as much public funds compared to other neighborhood public schools, but legislation aimed to increase charter school per-pupil funding from 75 percent to 95 percent for Chicago and other districts is currently pending in the Illinois House Rules Committee. State Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago) is the main sponsor of the bill, HB 980.

Chicago is also moving toward equalized funding for charter schools as part of the Gates District Charter Compact agreement that CPS signed on to in 2011. The agreement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase charter schools in Chicago calls for equalized funding, along with stronger collaboration among charters and neighborhood schools.

Joining the compact allows Chicago to compete with other cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City, for multi-million dollar grants.

The city was awarded $100,000 when it signed on to the compact, but it did not receive a grant in 2012 to help pay for its plan of constructing and renovating buildings for 60 new charter schools over a five-year period. The Gates Foundation said it did not award the grant due to the city’s recent change in school leadership, from former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard to Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Catalyst Chicago reported.

CPS is able to compete in another round of funding for projects related to district-charter collaboration and other charter school investments this spring or early summer.

“I’m perturbed, because so far, Chicago has only gotten about $100,000 of that Gates money, and we’re creating all this havoc in these communities, and we haven’t gotten anything to show for it,” said Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance.

Leonard said it’s her suspicion that the district-charter compact is driving the recent school closings.

“If you look at how things are unfolding in Chicago, it seems to be following the Gates plan,” she said. “They have not said so yet, but they are probably going to eventually, if not directly then indirectly, turn over these closed buildings, I believe, to charters.”

Private Funding Concerns

Other private foundations that help fund charters in Chicago also concern some opponents of the schools.

One of the city’s — and the country’s — biggest private funders of charter school startups is Walmart’s charitable arm, the Walton Family Foundation. The group gave $3.8 million to the city last year for new charters, more than any other city, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report.

Since 1997, the Walton Family Foundation has shelled out about $22.8 million in support of Chicago charter schools.

The Walton Family Foundation has come under fire from the Chicago Teachers Union for its corporate-style approach to school reform and its bankrolling of some of CPS’ public community engagement meetings during the recent school closure process. 

“The way the Walton family has interfered in Chicago, working to shutter public schools while simultaneously opening unproven, under-regulated alternatives, makes it clear that their primary interest is not better education for kids, but rather undermining public schools in order to promote an alternative, private-style school system,” CTU President Karen Lewis said in a statement. 

Saltman said charters typically shift public money away from unionized and experienced teachers in the direction of charter administrators, and the schools often emphasize a “very rigid” style of teaching.

Some networks use fines for minor acts of disobedience. For example, the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has 12 Chicago high school campuses, uses $5 fines and after-school detentions for things like chewing gun or bringing chips to school.

“The studies are quite mixed in terms of the impact of charters on the education of young people,” the Grassroots Collaborative’s Patel said. “If this was really about the education of children, (charter expansion) wouldn’t be happening, but in fact there are other motivations here, and it is very clear what those motivations are.”

The charter movement is not based on evidence, Saltman said, but based on a metaphor of “private sector efficiencies.”

The idea is that chartering will be a benefit to schools and students, Saltman said, but “There is actually no evidence that it does any of that.”

“There’s lots of evidence of the contrary,” he noted. “Yet, this stuff is expanding despite the evidence.”

What May Come Next

Leonard said she’s unsettled by a trend she’s noticed in North Lawndale.

She suspects the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a non-profit, Chicago-based private contractor for turnaround schools, will come out the big winner in North Lawndale if the Chicago Board of Education OKs CPS’ proposed school action plan next month.

“I’m concerned about them creating an island to themselves,” Leonard said. “I’m also concerned about what this larger picture could be in terms of a community plan that they’re not sharing with the people.”

AUSL manages a total of 25 CPS schools and is the district’s exclusive contractor for school turnarounds.

AUSL is different than charter networks, because its teachers are unionized and part of the CPS-CTU collective bargaining agreement. AUSL-managed schools are also required to accept students from its neighborhood boundaries. In comparison, charters typically hold a lottery-like acceptance process and take in students from across the city.

But AUSL is like charters in its financial backing and vision for education reform. For example, AUSL got a $10.3 million boost from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in 2008. Over the last five years, the U.S. Department of Education has also contributed more than $10 million to the non-profit.

In North Lawndale, AUSL manages Johnson Elementary, Collins Academy High School, Bethune Elementary and Herzl Elementary.

If CPS’ school actions are approved, Bethune will close and merge into Gregory Elementary, which will free up capacity for AUSL to take over Chalmers Elementary, Leonard said. CPS wants Chalmers to turn around, meaning its entire staff would be fired and replaced, at the end of the academic year. Chalmers is one of six schools that may see such an action.

Chalmers, Collins and Johnson are located in Douglas Park or around the perimeter.

Another school adjacent to the park, Pope Elementary, is on the list to close and merge into the AUSL-managed Johnson.

"The parents at Pope are very concerned, because they have a very nurturing culture at Pope, and they feel like they may be turning their children over to a much more aggressive environment and not as welcoming," Leonard explained.

If Pope does close, and its students folded into Johnson, that would leave an empty building next to newer townhomes that each cost about $350,000, she explained.

“That to me seems really strange,” Leonard said. “They haven’t released publicly any plans for the Pope building, so until they do, my question is why would you leave an empty building next door to new townhomes when you spent all these years cultivating this clientele that would invest in their home in North Lawndale?”

Leonard and other community members have also questioned the academic performance of AUSL’s North Lawndale schools.

A Designs for Change study last year that compared turnarounds to other neighborhood schools found Bethune was AUSL’s lowest scorer, coming in at 199th out of 210 schools.

Collins Academy also has CPS’ lowest academic rating, Level 3, and is on probation.

“They seem to have good teachers and good administrators that are passionate, but for whatever reason, they’re not getting the results that the policy makers are holding everybody else accountable to, and I think that’s pretty hypocritical,” Leonard said.

Leonard added that AUSL tends to collaborate among its managed schools, working within it's "own little network."

“That’s concerning to me, because AUSL typically does not play nice," she said as she stood outside Pope's main entrance last Friday. "They don’t collaborate with the other schools. Here in North Lawndale, we have a history of collaboration and that, in my opinion, just having three schools controlled by one entity, no diversity, that will not fly, in my opinion."

Deirdre Campbell, director of marketing and communications for AUSL, said its schools go through the same permitting process to use Douglas Park as any other organization.

"We're not trying to corner the market in Douglas Park," she said."We work at CPS' request, and so they are the ones that put forth the schools that they believe are appropriate to turn around, and we do a very good job of turning around schools."

The Chicago Board of Education is set to vote on CPS' school action plan on May 22. 

Top Image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

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