A group of Chicago parents, students and community members released a new report Tuesday arguing that the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) plan to open new charter schools to help relieve overcrowding is "deeply flawed."
Communities United for Quality Education (CUQE) and Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) jointly released the “Big Dollars, Little Sense" report, which says CPS is using "misleading data" to help make its case for possible charter school expansion.
Back in mid-August, CPS issued a request for proposals (RFP) for new charters slated to open in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, primarily in 11 “priority communities” on the Northwest and Southwest sides as an attempt to reportedly address neighborhood school overcrowding.
Later that same month, the Chicago Board of Education at its monthly meeting approved a reduced 2014 budget for CPS, slashing $68 million in classroom spending in attempts to close the district's $1 billion budget shortfall. According to the report, traditional school budgets have been cut by $351 million in the past two years, while the district's charter school spending has increased by more than $143 million to $570 million.
Community organizer Demian Kogan said CPS is delivering two conflicting stories about its fiscal standing.
"One, that there's this budget crisis and difficult decisions need to be made, and then another, which they're telling much more quietly through their actions, which is we need to bring more charter schools, and there's a lot of money available for that," he said.
CSOSOS and CUQE say recent school budget cuts have led to teacher layoffs, resulting in packed classrooms. In other instances, students are no longer allowed to take textbooks home because they have to share them with other students.
“It is unacceptable that Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and CPS is misleading the public to justify charter expansion, while our neighborhood schools suffer,” CSOSOS student leader Sarah Johnson said in a statement. “What message does it send to students and taxpayers when neighborhood schools don’t have basic educational resources while CPS is investing millions in new charters?”
In the report, the groups maintain that CPS used broad and inaccurate geographic boundaries to inflate community area overcrowding numbers for the RFP. The education activists also argue that CPS did not update the RFP's overcrowding data with numbers from the 10th day of this school year, which showed a drop in the district's enrollment by some 3,000 students.
Additionally, the report noted that the RFP utilization rates did not factor in mobile classrooms and leased classroom space or 2016 U.S. Census projections, which show that the student-age population is set to decrease in all but one of the RFP's charter expansion priority areas.
The two groups did their own calculations, adjusting for these various factors, and found that the utilization rates within the RFP priority areas decreased by an average of 13 percent, according to the report. In six out of nine elementary areas, the report shows the utilization rates were under 100 percent.
CPS did not respond to Progress Illinois' request for comment on this report by deadline. But in an interview Tuesday with the Chicago Sun-Times, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district needed to get the RFP out when it did, and the new numbers from September still demonstrate that the targeted communities need help in relieving overcrowding, arguing that the areas are currently overcrowded or close to it.
CUQE and CSOSOS also argue in the report that charter schools do not produce better outcomes than traditional neighborhood public schools. CPS, however, pushed back on that claim, saying that a composite analysis by the district shows that the majority of charters perform better than the traditional schools where students would have otherwise been enrolled at.
Among the report's recommendations, CPS should work to curb existing overcrowding by shifting attendance boundaries and adding mobile classrooms where they are needed. But Carroll told the Sun-Times that tweaking attendance boundaries won't fix the overcrowding issue in a number of communities that are experiencing, and will continue to face, population increases. Mobile classrooms are also not a long-term solution, she said.
Kogan acknowledged that these solutions alone won't fully solve the overcrowding problem across the city.
"We just offered some options, because we want, number one, taxpayers and the public to know that there's other much more cost-efficient solutions. And number two, you can't [shove] anything down one community's throat," he said. "We're saying these are things CPS needs to consider and earnestly engage in a dialogue with the community, including parents and all the schools in the neighborhood, to make the best long-term decision possible to address the problem."
If CPS were to shift the attendance boundaries for the overcrowded elementary schools identified in the RFP, all but one of the overcrowded schools would become efficiently utilized by CPS' definition, Kogan noted.
"CPS needs to be honest with the community and with parents about what the data says," he stressed. "If they believe charter schools that do not outperform traditional public schools are the future of CPS, then they need to be honest and upfront about that so that the community and the stakeholders and the taxpayers can then have a say in what they think about it."