Charter schools do not redeem system

With responses ranging from great fanfare to angry outcry, the Chicago Board of Education approved seven out of 17 applications for new charter schools during its Jan. 22 meeting. The wave of charters may increase the number of classroom seats, but it won’t necessarily improve the system for all students.

In the wake of 47 neighborhood school closures in the summer of 2013, the district is facing overcrowding. With too many students and no place for them to go, the district drafted a plan to add more charter schools immediately after the August 2013 closures. While charter school students often score higher on standardized exams, starting new schools rather than improving existing ones seems to serve the city’s best interest, not the children’s.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but they are exempt from some of the regulations that apply to public schools because they are run by nonprofits or charitable organizations that sign contracts with the Chicago Public Schools system. The Chicago Teachers Union opposes building more charter schools because such a quick turnaround from the 47 closures seems to be an evasive measure against the CTU’s hiring negotiations, because new charters would not be required to hire back teachers who worked at the closed schools. CTU may be oversensitive, but it is on the right track—opening more schools is counterproductive when better solutions are available.

The 47 empty schools are in more convenient locations for students and many have supplies and existing infrastructure, as reported Sept. 23 by The Chronicle. The Board’s plan to erect brand new buildings is an enormous investment when the 47 closed school buildings could be rehabbed and reopened as charter schools, particularly considering CPS is entrenched in $1 billion in debt.

Charter schools may offer many students a better education than they might receive at the neighborhood public schools, but charters have limited seats, and a student’s admission hinges on his or her number being drawn in a lottery. The students who are not chosen must either attend public school or pay to enroll in a private academy, which many cannot afford to do—the 2011 tuition at the private Catholic schools in Chicago was $13,078, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools. The children whose families cannot pay tuition must go to public schools, and while the education there is often equitable, the schools receive fewer resources. Because of the disparity, this system creates two classes of education, setting up some kids to succeed and others to fall below those who had access to better opportunities.

Adding more charter schools to the city’s system may seem like an attempt to equalize education, but every family wants their children to attend the school with the most resources to help them succeed, which, in Chicago, often means one of the charter schools. Unless the entire CPS system improves its resource allocation and information to equal those of the charter schools, there will always be education disparity. Instead of building more charter schools, the Board of Education should step back, reevaluate resources and devise a plan to make education in all schools equal.

Reopening some of the shuttered buildings would ease public anger toward the closures and save the district money. The money saved on additional charter schools could instead go to new textbooks and other learning materials, which the district desperately needs.

The Chicago Board of Education seems to favor a philosophy of tossing everything out the window and starting over rather than trying to repair an ailing school system, but its system is not made of machinery. Experimenting with children’s educations can permanently damage the future of the city and its children.