Charter Schools: A Plea

From parents and Chicago’s citizens:

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • John Duffy

    There’s nothing magical about charter schools. About half perform better than public schools and half perform worse. There are many public schools which are quite terrible, but their poor quality reflects many social pathologies and not just poor teachers.

    Question: if all those 23,000 kids get into charter schools, what becomes of the public schools remaining? How would we help the children at those schools learn when all of the children come from homes that are, at best, non-literate and are, at worst, drug and gang ridden?

    We pile on schools all the responsibility for dealing with our overwhelming social ills. Perhaps we all need to take a bit more responsibility and take measures to ensure that schools and communities recover and heal, that schools and communities are safe, that an ethic of true learning, not just test taking, can take root in our most beleaguered communities.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I am all for good schools. I work for an after school program in Chicago and my wife was a public school teacher in Chicago for 9 years. Charter schools are not going to solve the problems of Chicago’s students.

    It is important to remember that Chicago has actually made some pretty significant educational gains in the last 10 years. There is a long way to go, but there is also some pretty big obsticles to overcome. In 2001 only 38.8% of students met or exceeded state goals in 3 to 8th grade. In 2012 that number is 73.4%. And the goals have gotten harder in that time.

    I am not opposed to Charter Schools, but they are not a magic bullet and they are not necessarily any better than the average CPS school.

    What is important is that we should not be expecting the impossible from CPS while at the same time not giving them credit for some pretty impressive growth.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    By the way, to give the negative of my previous comment, the area where CPS is not doing well is high school. The 11th grade PSAE test has actually dropped from 2001 from 35.5% meeting or exceeding state goals to 31.9%.

    Part of this is that CPS is keeping more kids in school. Nearly 65% more students took the 11th grade test in 2012 than in 2001 in spite of the population of CPS as a whole dropping by almost 100,000 during that time.

    But very few of those new charter schools are high school and that is where the additional support is really needed and it is not being received.

  • Robin

    This comment: “But very few of those new charter schools are high school and that is where the additional support is really needed and it is not being received.”

    Makes me think that the area where CPS is improving (elementary and middle) is the area where it is facing direct competition from Charters, while where it lacks competition (highschool) it is stagnant or declining.

    Do you think it is possible that competition from charters has spurred improvement in elementary and middleschool in CPS?

    Do the charters get the same funding per student as CPS? If not it is possible that allowing charters to take some students at reduced funding levels has actually increased funding per student for those remaining in CPS.

  • Elaine

    Well, I think the waiting list has everything to do with the sorry state of Chicago public schools. It is not an indicator of charter schools’ appeal thruout the country. Arne Duncan? Rahm Emanuel? Reaping the results.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have three brothers and two sisters in law who teach in five different public school districts.
    Those in affluent suburban districts are in schools that are doing well, while those in less affluent urban districts are in steady decline. The state of our public schools has everything to do with we the people and our collective refusal to fund public schools at levels that would provide the resources and class size that would enable excellent education for our children.

    During the decline of our urban areas people could blame such shortfall on a declining tax base. But as the wealthy have become wealthier and charter schools have relieved us of the requirement to pay for public education — THE VERY ISSUE SCOT IS ADDRESSING, life has become a bit more complex. But if we look at trends in funding for public schools it is still all in one direction.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    @Robin, it is possible that competition has made some difference. But evaluation of charter schools in Chicago is very mixed. They are not performing any better than the average CPS school as a whole. Some of them are very good. Many of them are not. The big changes seem to be mostly a result of closing down poor performing schools and re-opening the schools later with different leadership.

    That an actually being evaluated well. I am not in favor of all of the No Child Left Behind reforms, but at the very least they required all schools and all students be evaluated. The new reforms by the national standards wil allow evaluation across state lines. Which again, by itself will force schools to re-think how they educate students.

    CPS already had stiff competition from the Catholic schools prior to 2001. There were more than 1 in 5 students educated in a private school prior to 2001. The increase in charter schools has not increased the percent of kids in private schools so I am inclined to think it is general school reforms not charter schools that are the cause of change.

    Charter schools are funded per student and get basically the same rate as regular public schools, but charter schools have lower rates of special education students (which in many districts account for as much as 25% of the education dollars). So even if there was a slightly less per student going to charter schools that still may not make up for the increased per student costs of special education. And urban and poor schools have higher rates of special education enrollment because of a variety of health and environmental factors.

    Education is complicated. And nothing is going to really be a magic bullet. High schools in Chicago is very odd. It is a very difficult application system, there are wide differences in schools. Students may travel well over an hour each way to go to school across the city.

    May of our very promising 8th graders still end up doing very poorly in high school. If I had solutions I would offer them. But even with African American males increasing their graduation rates by a 1/3 over the last 10 years, they are still only graduating 46% of African American males after 5 years. Even the highest sub-group (Asian females) only have 86 percent graduation rate after 5 years.

  • Mark Brown

    If you understand that public schooling is not about a real education but a government approved education it all makes sense. Raise taxes to the point parents can’t walk and private options close. Drastically limit competition only to approved entities. Put in place core curricula designed in Washington or some suitably distant and insulated entity. Use edu-speak in that curricula so that concerned parents might not be able to decipher it. Stomp on some of those who have the temerity to complain or but them in the begging line. It is about power to crush otherwise we would have privatized schooling a long time ago.

  • TJJ

    Charter Schools may not be the whole answer, or a magic bullet, but they have certainly been part of the answer and they have created competition where previously there was none and schools and teachers and administrators could get away with being sub standard. Chicago schools are a mess. It used to be the argument that they were what they were because of the demographics they had to work with. Charter schools proved that to be false, all across the country, not just Chicago. Sure, not all Charter Schools are great or even good, but most are better than the public school alternative, hence the waiting list approaching 23k students.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    @Mark, I fear you have very little understanding of public education.

    To over simplify, the problems of public education are mostly educating those that are hard to educate. Yes the federal government has mandated that special education students and english language learners get additional help. Yes that is expensive and yes the federal government has never funded those programs to the extent that the should.

    Many kids could learn enough to get by with basically any old teacher. But very low performing students (and very high performing students) really need good teachers and specialized attention. We could go back to a system were only those that could afford can go to school (like make countries around the world) and we would go back to a point where the vast majority of the country could not read.

    Go back just 140 years, before public education and and the literacy rates in the US was less than 80 percent (and that includes people that could do little more than write their name). Today the adult literacy rate is over 99%. Using a more strict ‘marginal literacy’ roughly a 4th grade reading level it is estimated that still 20% of adults were marginally literate in 1964, but only 3 percent are marginally literate now. Public education may not have been important for you, but it is important to raising up the poorest in the US and is a significant reason the US is able to compete economically around the world.

    But prior to no child left behind, which has some huge problems, the federal government has also never required evaluation of education. And national standards have only come about because states got together and the Gates Foundation funded the planning to actually put together national standards. States are voluntarily adopting them.

    There has always been private education. The Catholic system of private education has existed well and been significant in size in most urban areas of the US for over 100 years. As I said, 1 in 5 Chicago students are educated in private schools and the vast majority (around 75%) are in Catholic schools. Many of these schools serve primarily low income students because of Catholic devotion to education.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    @TJJ, I don’t disagree that they are part of the answer, but only part. In Chicago 23,000 is only about 5.7% of the student population. So even though it is a large number, as a percentage it is not that big. If 80%, or even 50% of CPS students were attempting to get into charter schools, then maybe it would illustrate crisis status. But 5.7% on a waiting lists is probably no higher than many other systems that are much better off than Chicago.

  • Elaine

    TJJ, please provide backup substantiating your claim that most charter schools are better than public. It’s just not so. They are not regulated, standards are not the same, etc.

    As for closing schools, there is tremendous pushback in a number of cities including Chicago. Why? Primarily because poor families no longer have a neighborhood school. Folks are protesting this provision of No Child Left Behind.

    Chicago is a disaster. Arne Duncan should be held to acct for that rather than given unprecedented authority in Obama admin when it comes to education.

  • Drane Reynolds

    A simpler solution…

    Why not just adequately fund public schools so that they can deal with the multiple problems and issues of our modern urban society?


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