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CPS, CTU unlikely allies against state charter commission

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool (above) and CTU VP Jesse Sharkey agree it’s time to get rid of the Illinois State Charter School Commission. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Amid layoffs, strike threats and ongoing contract negotiations, the leaders of Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union agreed on something Wednesday.

It’s time to get rid of the Illinois State Charter School Commission, which Tuesday night overturned CPS’ decision to shutter three charter schools it agreed are academically weak — and it’s up to the state’s dysfunctional Legislature to abolish it.

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey are willing to work together on legislation to curtail or eliminate the state’s appointed panel that can — and just did — overturn local school district decisions on charter schools.

“This proves that the governor’s commission’s ruling shows that the General Assembly needs to act,” Claypool said while touring Perez Elementary School on the Near Southwest Side. “They need to rein in this unaccountable body that usurps local control and says that quality standards measuing the academic performance of our schools means nothing.”

But Claypool would not comment on the effect the reversals of CPS’ powers over charters would have on ongoing negotiations with the CTU, to which he had offered a cap on the number of charter schools that teachers didn’t believe he could enforce.

“That’s the kind of decision that could destroy one of the key agreements that we thought we had,” Sharkey said. “I know we don’t have an entire agreement yet, but any agreements at all are hard to come by, and having the charter commission kind of sabotage that is pretty rough.”

If the adversaries were to team up and “make it clear to legislators that this is one that CPS and the CTU actually agree on,” Sharkey said legislation could make it through the Democrat-controlled Legislature despite likely opposition from the charter-supporting Republican governor.

But neither would commit to any existing legislation already introduced to the General Assembly to curtail the commission’s powers. Nor would Claypool comment on whether CPS might sue to reverse the commission’s decision.

After abruptly taking the helm at CPS last year following a contracting scandal, Claypool moved quickly to beef up district policy monitoring the quality at the district’s 130 charter schools. Within a month of policy changes, CPS notified several charters that they were on a closing list.

State commissioners — even two who typically vote against charters — accused CPS of moving too quickly to give Betty Shabazz’s Sizemore campus, Amandla Charter High School and Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School a fair shake and then voted 6-0 Tuesday to approve the schools’ appeals to stay open. The commissioners even agreed that the schools had serious academic problems to overcome.

The three South Side schools now will be funded directly by the state and will receive a larger share of funding than if they were under CPS’ control.

“The actions of CPS shows why you need a commission to provide a safeguard against random actions by a school district,” said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a former commissioner. “I think CPS really kind of caused this problem by changing the [closing] criteria at the last minute and put the schools the families and the commission in a very bad spot.”

Claypool brushed off any criticism that the district was to blame.

“That misses the point that year after year these school have failed these children, and they are sentencing these kids to fall farther and farther behind and that is absolutely wrong,” he said to reporters who chased him as as he hurried out of Perez.

Despite its financial woes necessitating hundreds of millions in high interest borrowing and an ongoing plea to Springfield for a pension solution, CPS recently solicited and received letters of intent from 16 more charters that would like to open 21 new campuses by 2018.