Chicago could become first city to bargain cap on charter schools

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UNO teachers and staff conduct a press conference to demand a fair contract at UNO Charter School Network downtown headquarters last week. File Photo. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

If teachers ratify the agreement that barely staved off a strike, then Chicago would become the first American city to cap its number of charter schools using a union contract.

Contained in the deal to be considered this week by Chicago Teachers Union delegates is a provision to impose limits on both the number of charter schools in Chicago Public Schools as well as those schools’ total enrollment over the duration of the four-year agreement.

Chicago’s charter schools now educate about 55,000 of the district’s 390,000 students.

The CTU has long called for a moratorium on any new charters, saying they siphon children and money away from ailing district schools, and they often play by different rules than district-run schools. Chicago budgets a fixed amount of money to a school for each student enrolled, so as overall enrollment continues to decline and budgets to further tighten, those calls have grown louder.

Originally established to be free of bureaucracy, charter schools in Chicago don’t have to use union teachers. The schools that have since unionized belong to a local separate from the CTU.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools has condemned the cap, saying “political accommodation trumped sound policy.”

Chicago Public Schools did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

The proposed lid also comes just as the NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter expansion as well as more transparency in the publicly-funded but privately-managed schools — and as Chicago stares down the barrel of a charter teacher strike set to start Wednesday.

Several states have caps on schools or enrollment but no one else has negotiated one before in collective bargaining, said Greg Richmond of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But the caps won’t stop new schools from opening, said Richmond, who also was a founding member of the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

That’s because the state commission can overturn CPS if it turns down applications to open new charter schools, as it has in the past. In fact, five organizations have open applications seeking to open seven new schools in Chicago. Public hearings are scheduled for Nov. 21 and CPS won’t say what it plans to do with them.

“I don’t see how CPS may choose to manage this,” Richmond said. “If they run into that situation where [one school’s] supposed to grow, one way CPS can accommodate that is by shutting down other charter schools. It could function as an incentive to close more low performing charter schools.”

CPS has already identified three schools on its charter watchlist that could face closure at the end of the year.

But the state commission also has already overridden Chicago school board decisions to close three schools for poor academics, letting them reopen this fall under its own jurisdiction, and keeping a share of state money that used to go to CPS.

So to try to put some teeth into the cap, the Board and CTU also agreed to a rare combination of force to support legislation that’d “revise or alter the Illinois Charter Commission.” Bills already proposed in Springfield haven’t gone anywhere yet.

Richmond also wondered how and by whom the expansion provision would be policed if one of the parties had a grievance.

“The mystery to me is, how is that possibly enforced?” Richmond said. Since existing charters have contracts, “CPS, it would seem to be, is between a rock and a hard place.”

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