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Amid declining enrollment, 21 charter campuses seek to open in CPS

Noble DRW campus parent Benita Jackson speaks about charter schools on Wednesday at the Chicago Board of Education's monthly meeting. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Amid falling enrollment and more projected budget woes, Chicago Public Schools announced Wednesday that 16 charter operators want to open 21 new campuses through 2018.

The privately run operators submitted letters of intent earlier this week to try to open 21 new schools, including four alternative schools, over the next two years in the district, which has been cutting staff and programs to close this year’s massive budget gap.

The organizations include newcomers to Chicago’s education scene as well as veterans. CPS said the letters were one early step in a process to evaluate new charters, so the operators’ plans could change. The letters aren’t required, either, so it’s possible more operators will submit actual proposals by their April due date.

Intrinsic Schools wants a third and fourth campus, though it continues to look for a space for its second school.

And the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has previously said it would try to add two campuses per year for the foreseeable future, seeks to add its 18th and 19th schools.

Spokesman Cody Rogers called the letter “a matter of required bureaucratic procedure so that we may remain in conversation with CPS and local communities. We cannot commit yet to any plans.”

No one has questioned the timing of the charter news, though it surely will put more pressure on negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education, which still haven’t settled a contract to replace the one that expired on June 30.

The Board of Education recently offered the CTU a contract proposal that included a cap over the life of the contract on existing charters — about 130 of CPS’ total 660 schools — and would allow only as many new ones to open as had been closed.

The CTU’s 40-member bargaining team rejected that offer, partly because the union said CPS couldn’t control the actions of the state’s charter school commission, which can overrule local charter decisions.

That commission is now considering appeals from three charters CPS will close at the end of this school year, and if it does overrule the district, those schools will become independent mini-districts entitled to a greater share of CPS money than before.

The CTU frequently criticizes the publicly funded, privately run schools, saying they destabilize district schools while being held to a lighter set of standards — and CPS, which will “continue to prioritize charter quality in its decisions going forward,” for permitting more of them.

“Despite the Board’s claims of a historic financial crisis, it’s business as usual for charter operators, who look to soak up more even more scarce resources by proposing to open another 21 campuses over the next several years,” union spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said in an email. “The District’s claim of prioritizing ‘quality’ is an empty one — as a school district that promotes school competition over collaboration cannot create equal opportunity for all students.”

The parent group Raise Your Hand also has questioned the district’s logic in opening any new schools while still planning school staff layoffs Monday — and not just charters. The group is circulating a petition to halt a planned $60 million new North Side selective high school.

CPS publicized the letters right before February’s Board of Education meeting, during which the appointed seven members officially closed schools with enrollments that were already cleared out: Moses Montefiore Special Education School and the original Marine Math and Science Academy High School.

At that same meeting, several charter parents chided CPS for dragging charters into talks with the CTU that charter schools, whose few unionized campuses belong to a different union, can’t participate in.

“While CPS is experiencing quite a few challenges, it is not fair to use charter schools as bargaining chip in negotiations,” said Benita Jackson, a Noble DRW campus parent. “A moratorium is not necessary to hold schools accountable.”

This year’s letters came from:

  • Center for Positive Advancement
  • Connected Futures Academy
  • Evelyn Ann Charter School
  • Geneses Academic Preparatory Center
  • Intrinsic Schools, which seeks to add two campuses
  • KIPP Chicago
  • Light House Youth Center
  • Mae Carol Jemison CORE Academy
  • Milewski Nature Fund, Inc.
  • Newcomer Academy
  • Noble Street Network, which also seeks to add two campuses
  • Perspectives Charter School
  • pilotED Schools
  • Project Simeon 2000
  • SMART Charter School, which wants to open two campuses
  • And a 16th organization that is still searching for a name