While the Chicago teachers’ strike continues into a second day, some 52,000 students are going about their normal, daily routines. These students are served by the 119 charter schools in Chicago. And although 10 of these campuses are unionized, with union officials representing teachers in negotiations with school management, they are non-CTU.
The popularity of charter schools is growing, as evidenced by the 18,000 families currently on waiting lists for Chicago charter schools. Andrew Broy, President of Illinois Charter Schools, says the city’s charter school enrollments have seen a dramatic increase over the past decade, nearly doubling.
Currently, Chicago’s charter schools can’t accommodate the growing demand. Advocates are pushing for the creation of more charter schools, pointing to the flexibility and adaptability of these schools.
“CTU and CPS’ approach is to have a top-down system that applies equally to all 650 schools, while the charter approach is to let those closest to the children—teachers, parents, and principals—design schools around the needs of students,” said Broy. “So, for instance, needs in North Lawndale are different from Beverly or West Rogers Park, around the issue of literacy. So, let principals and parents decide how to structure that. CPS can’t adapt that way because of current regulations in contracts.”
Broy contends that charter schools aren’t in competition with public schools, but rather are providing an alternative for families. Additionally, Broy notes that the goal is not for charter schools to replace public schools, but to create conditions to let public schools thrive.
“Right now, charter schools are given a lot of autonomy in exchange for accountability. The same model should be applied to public schools,” he said.
Charter schools have more flexibility in designing their programs and are exempt from regulations that can hamstring public schools, like rules on hiring, curriculum, and compensation.
Phyllis Lockett, President and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, emphasized that charter schools are giving families an alternative, especially those living on the South and West Sides of Chicago, where public schools are continually underperforming.
“Honestly, parents who have means have options, and can choose to send children to private schools,” said Lockett. “Our worry is that, depending on your zip code, South and West Sides only have one school option, and in most cases that school is failing kids.”
However, the Chicago Teachers Union argues that trying to compare charters and neighborhood schools is like comparing apples to oranges, because only about half of the students at a charter actually live in the charter’s same neighborhood. Charter schools have a free lottery system for their openings, but CTU is skeptical if it really is in fact accessible for all.
“I’m sorry, but it’s still selective enrollment when you have to go through all these steps to go there. And articles are coming out about counseling students out. Noble kicks kids out and they get dumped to Wells, and Wells doesn’t have any option but to deal with it and maintain test scores and be heavily scrutinized. We have to deal with more issues than charters, and the comparison is not fair,” said Sarah Hainds, a researcher for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Charter school proponents believe the crucial issue is giving parents more options regarding the education of their children.
“Parents are the arbitrators and they should get to decide,” said Lockett. “The status quo has pervaded the city for years, keeping schools open that aren’t performing and don’t hold low-level accountability. The problem here is the pushback to change the status quo, and that’s pretty sad because the kids lose in the process.”
CTU feels that this rhetoric of “parent choice” is a tactic used to entice parents towards choosing a charter school, while distracting from charters' actual performance level.
“We really don’t understand why the mayor and CPS keep talking about charter schools. Study after study comes out that charters are not working, and when push comes to shove, they talk about parent choice and flip the rhetoric,” said Hainds.
In a February 2012 press release, CPS announced that there were 123,000 students in underperforming Chicago Public Schools.
That same press release cited that in 2011, only 7.9 percent of all 11th graders tested college-ready, and over 250 schools are on probation.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to overhaul Chicago’s underperforming schools, including closing schools, implementing turnarounds, and expanding charter schools. But CTU leaders argue that charters devalue the profession by paying teachers less, and that public money is diverted from struggling neighborhood schools to support charters.
“Too many charters have dismal results and CPS keeps renewing their contract. It’s a tremendous resource to open a school, fund it and get it up and running, and get their act together for two to three years. All that, and then they’ll just shut it down. That’s not the solution after all the time, money and effort could have easily been invested in neighborhood schools, for teachers' prep, curriculums and working as a team, which CPS never does,” said Hainds.
“In terms of taking money from neighborhood schools, I don’t buy that either,” said Lockett. “Charter schools serve neighborhoods that have high concentrations of low performing schools that have been operating for decades. We’re a public school offering an alternative for parents that don’t have any other choice.”
Charter schools receive funding from the district on a per-pupil formula. Lockett noted that in 2011 charters were given $7,300 per student for high school students and $5,800 for elementary students. These numbers, she says, are lower than they were in 2009.
“Charters don’t get increases on a commensurate level and don’t have the same access to funding as traditional schools, which is why charter teachers are paid less while working longer hours,” said Lockett.
So how are charter schools able to reach agreements with their teachers on contract negotiations?
“It’s a smaller group that is working directly with management, and you’re not dealing with layers of bureaucratic leadership,” said Broy. “You have a school with a principal, assistant principal, and 40 teachers coming to the bargaining table. Frankly with a system like this across the district, they’d be in a better situation now.”
The difference between the salaries of charter teachers and CTU teachers is not insignificant. While teachers with less than three years of experience receive similar pay in the two systems, averaging $45,000, “as these teachers acquire experience, the gap widens up to $12,000,” said Lockett. The average Chicago school teacher makes $74,839 annually, according to CPS.
“CTU gets guaranteed increases, while charters remain flat or get minor bumps in the 3 percent range. We can’t keep pace honestly with the salaries that CTU receives,” Lockett said. “We totally appreciate the challenges CPS teachers have, but charters have been working, doing a lot for less for a long time. With this economic crisis and the district facing pension obligations that will lead to a deficit topping $1 billion, it’s tough to reconcile.”
Legislation to provide an additional 30,000 tuition vouchers for students to attend private, charter, and religious schools has languished in the Illinois legislature for the past two years. Efforts to pass this voucher bill are being stymied by lobbyists of organized labor, because charter school teachers are not CTU members.
“There’s a strong union lobby that doesn’t want alternatives and they don’t want to change the status quo,” said Lockett. “There are a large number of schools, and charters or any one option aren’t going to take over the system, but this one size fits all model doesn’t work.”
“When public schools are not performing time and time again, and children’s scores are not meeting national levels, something has to change. I believe providing charter school vouchers, limited, not statewide because it’s not economically feasible, is a worthwhile endeavor,” said Rep. Jim Durkin (R) of the proposed 2010 voucher legislation. “There was a bill for school vouchers presented a few years ago just for Chicago Public Schools that failed. I’m a realist, and under the current political leadership in Springfield, I don’t think vouchers and charter schools are very well-received, and the reality of it is that unions have significant influence in Springfield.”
In response to questions on the expansion of charter schools, CPS Director of Media Affairs, Robyn Ziegler, stated, “We want to ensure that every child, in every community has access to a quality education that will prepare them for success in college and career. Expanding the number of Charter Schools and available Charter seats is certainly one of the ways CPS is increasing access to higher performing school options for families. But we are also working to boost achievement in all schools in every neighborhood across the city with new initiatives like the new Full School Day and a new rigorous curriculum that we implemented with the start of this school year.”
But when it comes down to side-by-side comparisons of charter and public school performances, the results aren’t so clear. State achievement test data was released last November for the first time in over 10 years. Both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune reported on the findings, concluding that charters are struggling just like CPS schools, and that test results on state exams are “wildly uneven” among charter schools.
However, other studies point to the long-term benefits charter schools can have. Bloomberg pointed to a 2009 Rand Corporation study that found students were more likely to graduate and attend college than their peers if they went to a Chicago charter school. Determining the success of charters is mixed. The Chicago Consortium said they would love to do comparison research on this topic, but currently don’t have access to the charter data necessary.
Some schools have seen success, such as high schools within the Noble Street Charter Network, often touted by Mayor Emanuel. The mayor has plans to expand charter schools, calling for 60 more charter schools to be created over the next five years. The budget passed by the Board of Education at the end of August included both an increase in enrollment and funding for charter schools.
Meanwhile, issues are still being hammered out between CPS and CTU, mainly dealing with job security. The two issues at the forefront are performance evaluations and a recall policy for teachers.
Lockett says the district’s new accountability system is based on MAP assessments that charters have been using for years to assess children and make adjustments in curriculum. In charter schools, part of a teacher’s salary is tied to student outcomes, to foster a culture of accountability. CPS officials want standardized testing to account for 25 percent of the rubric, with a 5 percent increase each year, capping at 40 percent; a measure CTU leaders claim is too punitive. CPS and teachers had settled on allowing student growth assessments to account for 25 per of a teacher’s evaluation back in March, but those numbers are still being contested. Teachers feel that evaluations weighted toward student performance are unfair due to the large number of factors beyond their control that can contribute to poor test scores, like lack of parent involvement, poverty, violence and homelessness.
Regarding the issue of teacher recalls, CPS has already agreed to rehire nearly 500 previously laid-off teachers to accommodate the new extended school day. However, Emanuel doesn’t want to get locked into a contract going forward that requires automatic recalls of teachers who have been let go due to school closings and consolidations. CPS says these teachers can apply for news jobs at schools that have openings or take a three-month severance package, but CTU wants a hireback policy in writing.
“We want that in the contract. There are rumors that it could be 100 schools closing, so there will be many laid-off teachers with closures and turnarounds. There’s no language in the contract, and we feel like we can’t do that to the members," said Hainds.
But Mayor Emanuel feels the argument should be about giving principals autonomy.
“I don't believe I should pick 'em. I don't believe CPS should pick 'em. I don't believe the CTU leadership should pick 'em," Emanuel said at a press conference Monday of hiring teachers. "If we're going to hold our local principals in the school accountable for getting the results we need, they need to pick the best qualified."