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EDITORIAL: Why charter school supporters worry about the next mayor of Chicago

Educators with Acero Schools strike outside Veterans Memorial Charter School Campus, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere

Educators with Acero Schools picket outside Veterans Memorial Charter School Campus in December. The Acero strike was the first charter teacher strike in the nation. | Tyler LaRiviere

When we read what 14 mayoral candidates had to say about charter schools, we better understood why wealthy supporters of charters are pouring money into the city elections.

They want to save a movement that’s in hot water and likely to get hotter. Only a handful of the candidates expressed much enthusiasm for charter schools.

Members of the pro-charter Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, are shoring up — with $1 million in December and counting — the PACs associated with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, as Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet recently wrote.

EDITORIAL

Chicago has 122 privately run, publicly funded charter schools, and they’re losing a strong ally in outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

They’re also in a battle for survival, just like neighborhood schools, as enrollment in Chicago Public Schools continues to plummet and a five-year moratorium on school closings draws to a close. Meanwhile, CEO Janice Jackson has promised tougher scrutiny on charters that fail to meet academic standards

In an Editorial Board questionnaire emailed to the 18 mayoral candidates, we asked, “What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?” Fourteen candidates responded. 

Only three candidates expressed support of charters without pointed caveats: Bill Daley, Garry McCarthy and John Kenneth Kozlar. Kozlar didn’t mention charters specifically, but he embraced a central tenet of the charter movement: giving parents school choice through competition.

“Competition within our education is much needed,” he wrote, “so that schools in every area can be good schools.”

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Daley wrote: “It’s time to move beyond the debate of charters vs. traditional public schools and recognize that they are all public schools. Parents just want a good school and the debate should focus on what is in the best interests of kids.”

And McCarthy, saying that his views on charters “evolved” as he saw more labor union involvement, wrote that charters “can be good neighborhood schools, especially in communities where neighborhood schools have been closed.” McCarthy, though, didn’t say why charters might make sense in those neighborhoods, and the logic is not obvious, given that those neighborhood schools usually were closed because of under-enrollment.

Dorothy Brown, Amara Enyia and Toni Preckwinkle clearly are more skeptical, having little or nothing good to say about charters.

Brown wrote that she opposes charters and supports more unionizing by charter school teachers. That’s a trend in full swing here in Chicago, where the nation’s first strike by charter teachers recently was settled.

Preckwinkle, who has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, wrote that charters are “a weapon for corporate privatization of education.” She called for “a freeze on any new charter schools until a fully elected school board can be implemented.”

Enyia did not make clear what role charters should play in Chicago, but she offered an extended critique. “With few exceptions,” she wrote, charters create a “separate and unequal” education system that reinforces class and racial bias.

Six candidates took more of a middle ground on charters. Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, Jerry JoyceLori Lightfoot, Paul Vallas, La Shawn Ford and Susana Mendoza saw some good in charters, with caveats or restrictions.

Chico, a longtime charter supporter, said he would call for a “a full review of all charters before opening new ones.” Fioretti said there should be a moratorium on charters until the next mayor has an “education strategy.”

Lightfoot wrote that charters “play a significant role in educating our children,” but she said she would impose a freeze on new charters. “We must change the relationship between CPS and charters,” she wrote, somewhat vaguely.

Joyce wrote that charters can play a role in education, but “to avoid unfair competition with neighborhood schools, the field should be leveled. Things like residency requirements and administrative pay should be subject to similar regulations as traditional CPS schools.”

Vallas, also known as a charter schools proponent, said Chicago shouldn’t open new schools “of any type until the district has a long-term plan to deal with over-capacity.” But Vallas also left the door open: “I would support existing high-performing charters taking over failing existing charter schools with ‘no displacement of children’ and would under certain circumstances support the opening of a new charter to address the needs of displaced students who are currently not being served.”

Ford wrote that he sees advantages to charter schools but believes the city has enough. “We need renewed attention to our neighborhood schools,” he wrote.

Mendoza, too, wants to prioritize neighborhood schools. She wrote that she supports the charter school cap that the CTU won in its latest contract, as well as unionization by charter school teachers.

Willie Wilson wrote nothing about where he stands on charter schools. In his response to our question about charter schools, he focused on other education issues.

We urge you to read the 14 full responses here.

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