The Chicago Public Schools will never get a handle on their massive financial problems if they can’t even decide without outside interference which schools should be opened or closed.
The State of Illinois, that is to say, should butt out.
In a bad sign of things to come, the Illinois State Charter School Commission this week overruled a decision by the Chicago School Board to close three charter schools at the end of the school year.
The commission may have had no choice under state law, given the way CPS blew by the rules to shut the three schools down. But at a time when CPS is understandably taking a more skeptical stance toward charter schools — rejecting many more requests to open new ones and more aggressively closing underperforming ones — the last thing CPS needs is a state commission second-guessing every move.
When CPS shoots down a charter school, the commission’s authority to overrule that decision on appeal should be extremely limited. If that requires a change in the state statute, so be it. It is not as if Chicago has been hostile to charter schools over the years — quite the contrary — and if CPS must now be a little less welcoming as part of an overall effort to stabilize its finances, so be it.
Last November, the School Board voted to close the three schools in question for the best of reasons: They were doing a poor job of educating children. The entire point of the charter school movement, we are so often told, is to provide kids with quality alternatives to poor-performing traditional public schools. But these three charters — Amandla Charter in Englewood, the Sizemore Academy campus of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in West Englewood, and Bronzeville Lighthouse — were not measuring up.
The commission’s action this week, unfortunately, likely will cost CPS money. The district could be left with less revenue, even on a per-student basis, to run its remaining schools.
When the state commission overrules CPS on a charter school closing, it effectively takes control of the school, funding it directly and deducting that money from CPS’ pot of general state aid. If the commission now decides to fund the three rescued schools at 100 percent of the state’s per-student tuition rate, that will cost CPS about $13 million — more than the per-student rate at district-run schools and other charter schools.
State interference in local charter school decisions undermines the ability of CPS negotiators to cut a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union. District officials have offered to cap the number of charter schools, but the union knows CPS can’t be counted on to deliver. The state commission ultimately decides if a charter school can open or stays open.
This editorial page has generally supported the charter school movement in Chicago. We like the healthy competition and the promise of innovation. Families deserve choices. We have supported good charter schools, especially in neighborhoods where the traditional public schools are dismal, and opposed those that would undercut quality existing schools. We will continue to call it that way.
But we also feel sure that CPS, rather than a once-removed state board, should be calling the shots in these tough financial times.
Or Chicago eventually will have two public school systems, one run by the city, the other by the state. Separate and unequal.
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