National | March 25, 2013

Unchain the charters

Here’s a haunting statistic that we cannot repeat too often: Of all the school districts in the U.S., Chicago Public Schools has one of the longest waiting lists for admission to a charter school. There are 19,000 students on the list this year. That number has been rising since 2008, when 13,500 Chicago students languished on the wait list.

Next year, there will be some 23,000 children waiting, Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, tells us.

Take a moment to absorb that number: 23,000 students hoping for a better education than their neighborhood schools can deliver. That’s 23,000 students – and their parents – eager for the same opportunity now given to 51,000 children in Chicago, and to tens of thousands of others across the country. All these kids want is the chance for a better education.

Wherever you live: How would you feel, and how forcefully would you demand better, if one of those 23,000 trapped students was your child?

In almost any enterprise other than the public education industry, demand would stimulate supply: More students clamoring for seats in high-performing charters would prompt operators to open or expand their own schools to meet the demand. That’s just smart business. But that’s not happening in Chicago. Why not?

CPS officials are wary about inflaming passions by approving too many new charters at the same time they’re closing neighborhood schools. Sure, we understand the political forces at play. But there’s a more urgent consideration: 19,000 students this year, 23,000 next year. And probably more in years to come. These children can’t wait – would you ask your child to wait? – until the political heat eases. It won’t.

You might chalk that scarcity of charter seats to resistance among Chicagoans to see more charters open in their neighborhoods. Not so. A new Joyce Foundation-Chicago Tribune poll shows strong and widespread support – among parents of CPS students and among other Chicagoans – for unchaining more charters in Chicago.

The poll of 1,010 Chicagoans found:

• More than 6 in 10 respondents (63.7 percent) favor making it easier for charters to expand in neighborhoods where there are currently waiting lists for admission to charter schools.

• An even larger share, 67.9 percent, agree that it should be easier for charters to open in neighborhoods with underperforming schools.

An impressive 6 in 10 (61.1 percent) favor a law that would empower parents to take control of a persistently failing school and hire a nonprofit education provider – usually a charter operator – to manage the school. That’s the "parent trigger" law that has shaken the status quo in California. There’s a push for such laws in 12 states at the moment, Education Week reports.

Candidate Rahm Emanuel talked up a trigger law in his campaign for mayor, but we haven’t heard much since then. Here’s a reminder, Mr. Mayor: Chicagoans, CPS parents included, agree with you. Let’s see a proposal.

Chicagoans understand that charters are the future of public education in this city. These schools draw excellent young teachers. They funnel money into the classroom, into serving students, not into a school district bureaucracy. And they often reap superior results where it matters: in student performance – not in kowtowing to local politicians.

Districts around the country vie to recruit the best charter operators. Just last week, The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit focused on education reform there, announced a $2 million investment that will launch new networks of charter schools to be run by two high-quality operators based in California, KIPP of San Francisco and Rocketship Education of San Jose.

Chicago? Right now, CPS is blowing a perfect opportunity to lure more top-flight charters here: CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett vows that all the schools slated last week for closing will not house charters.

What a waste of physical resources – schools built with the dollars of Chicago taxpayers, for the benefit of Chicago children.

Make no mistake: The best charter school operators in the country are watching Chicago. Unfortunately, some also are avoiding it. "I wish we spent as much effort recruiting high quality charter operators as we do new businesses," Broy of INCS tells us. "But charter operators say, ‘Why should I come to Chicago if Memphis gives me $3,000 more per pupil, I have lower labor costs and the political environment is better?’ We don’t exactly make the top of the beauty list here."

But Chicago could. One promising development: The Illinois State Charter School Commission took a bold step last week to expand charters. The commission overruled CPS and approved a promising plan by a powerhouse operator, Concept Schools, to open two college prep schools focusing on math and science in the McKinley Park neighborhood and on the North Side. Concept, based in Des Plaines, has a terrific record of running 27 schools across the Midwest, including the prestigious Chicago Math and Science Academy.

The commission’s decision is a huge win for charter momentum in Chicago and, most of all, for 1,500 fortunate kids who will attend those high schools.

The decision, the commission’s first vote to overrule an obstructionist Illinois district, should send a shudder through CPS and every other school bureaucracy in the state: You can’t turn down good charter proposals because of political pressure or any other flimsy excuse. There’s a second path to charter approval and state board members aren’t shy about reversing wrongheaded local decisions.

We hope this action encourages innovative charter operators around the country to take another look at Chicago.

Chicago could – should – top the list of districts moving aggressively to attract the best charter operators. If CPS wants to boost student achievement, it should unchain the charters. The goal: Not a single empty seat in a charter school, not a single Chicago child trapped on a wait list.

That’s what Chicagoans want.