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Chicago Fri Jan 16 2009

Rockford Takes One Giant Leap for Educational Excellence

But this is only the first step.

I attended the Rockford School Board's meeting on Tuesday and witnessed their unanimous approval for the first charter school in the city. The Legacy Academy of Excellence will be a K-5 school for "at-risk" students.

Charter schools are public schools but they're different than the norm, so here's some background from an op-ed I wrote last month in the Rockford Register-Star:

Charter schools are public schools open to any families who wish to apply. Charters design their own curricula, hire their own teachers and need to meet certain student achievement standards set forth in their agreements with state and local officials. If they don't meet these standards, the school must close, and students return to their local traditional public school.

In other words, Legacy will have freedoms that other public schools lack. From flexible work rules that allow charters to hire and retain the best teachers, to their independence to design curricula without mandates from Springfield or Washington, charters are fundamentally different than traditional public schools, and results in Chicago and elsewhere prove their high worth.

In Chicago, the high school graduation rate is a meager 51 percent. A kid that enrolls in a traditional Chicago public school will have a one-in-two chance of actually getting a diploma.

It's even worse in Rockford -- 39.5 percent -- so I'm overjoyed to see that they're taking this step to allow new ideas to come into the city with no strings attached. In fact, two more charter school operators have proposals in front of the school board right now: Chicago International Charter School and Galapagos Charter School. Votes on these proposals are coming soon.

My organization -- the Illinois Policy Institute -- does research on school choice and education reform issues. My colleague Collin Hitt has produced a white paper on the subject of charter schools, which I highly recommend for a read or a quick skim-through.

The charter school story goes beyond Rockford and Chicago -- there's a statewide cap in place that puts an arbitrary ceiling on the number of charters that can be founded in Illinois.

The question I always ask people when discussing the cap is, "Who is it helping?" It certainly doesn't help the kids -- there are thousands of kids on waiting lists in Chicago to get into a charter, and countless more outside the city who don't even have the option of entering a lottery to apply for a slot.

Rockford took a big step toward expanding school choices for students and parents this week. Now it's time for the state to act.

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xian / January 16, 2009 4:24 PM

I don't think your article adequately addresses the realities of actual practice in charter schools. In Chicago, we have seen charter schools exclude the "at risk" neighborhood students who are forced to commute far across gang-lines to attend another school. With the lack of accountability in charters that you refer to, we have seen charter school operators hire uncertified teachers and personnel, and in cases where they have abused children or broken rules, they have done so with relative impunity. Charter Schools continue to toss special education and ELL students aside like hot potatoes or lock them in rooms without mandated services.

Finally, once the demographic difference is accounted for, there is no research to suggest that charter schools are any better than neighborhood public schools.

Schools need to be improved, but experimenting on children with uncontrolled models simply because the students are unfortunate to be born poor is not a solution, nor is it any semblance of choice.

Instead, why not give communities control over their local schools and support the communities to build the best neighborhood school possible for their children?

Richard Lorenc / January 17, 2009 2:53 PM

Xian, the achievements of students in charter schools are indisputable. According to the CPS's latest assessment of charter schools in Chicago:

"36 of the 41 charter schools and campuses reporting on the ISAT Composite scores had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding Illinois Learning Standards than their comparison
neighborhood school;

"11 out of 13 charter high schools and campuses reported higher graduation rates than their comparison neighborhood schools;

"Charter schools and campuses outperformed their relative neighborhood schools on 83.9% of the relative student performance measures."

Any profession will have bad apples, and teachers who abuse students should be disciplined anywhere. Fact is, that the limited number of students who attend charter schools outperform their peers by every measurement.

Charters can't pick and choose their students--they're enrolled on the basis of a blind lottery. ELL students, special needs students, et al. have just as much of a chance to get into charter schools as those who don't require special considerations.

Traditional public schools' strict work rules and inflexible teaching methods can't achieve these results. Who cares if a teacher is uncertified if he or she is actually teaching kids well?

Competition with charters and other schools may help the traditional schools to perform better--and I hope it does. The only way to increase competitive pressure is for more students to have the ability to attend schools where they can succeed.

Local control is always better--I agree with you--but local school councils in Chicago neighborhoods haven't done the trick. Schools like charters, private schools and parochial schools have to serve the students (their customers) or they close. It's as simple as that. There is no such pressure on traditional public schools to which students are assigned.

Charter schools are the most accountable of all public schools. Students should be so lucky as to have every public school be a charter.

Garth / January 18, 2009 1:09 PM


Wow. How many days have you taught in the classroom? And who are your funders?

I highly question that your 1st party source of information is reliable- CPS. This is coming from a board of education that is not elected but appointed by Daley. They all come from the corporate sector and none have ever taught. Indeed, Arne Duncan, former CEO, is not qualified to give me, a CPS teacher, a review.

Recently, Caucus Of Rank and file Educators ( held a public hearing on Chicago's Rennaisance 2010 program. Over 400 people turned out for this event which hosted a comprehensive selection of speakers who testified on the many negative aspects of Renn 2010. One of the most domineering being charter schools.

The list is long. A woman from Perspectives was fired for blowing the whistle. Students with special needs were not receiving their federally mandated services. Three students at Aspira were strip searched and the teacher who blew the whistle fired (,aspira-high-school-strip-search-010709.article). Along with the strip search are substantial allegations of grade and attendance tampering. Other teachers in Public Schools testified that some students were returning from nearby charter schools. Some of the students were told that 'if they didn't get their grades up, they'd have to leave'. Still, other students left because, despite the glossy brochures, they were not happy. This sounds like selective enrollment to me.

While there are supposedly bad apples 'everywhere' (is Richard one?) what we are seeing with the charter schools is systemic. A Substance News search reveals the following:

Garth / January 18, 2009 1:10 PM

In a nutshell, the charter school movement is about privatization. After the dotcom bubble, investors found the housing market. One of their next markets, according to the Commercial Club of Chicago's Civic Committee. (

Richard's comment on the 'failure' of Local School Councils is appalling. Be aware that most charter schools have little to no parent representation on their boards. And what to do when there are no public schools to return to and it's a charter school monopoly?

These schools sound attractive to poor parents who want better for their children. And when we consider the years of teacher bashing we've been subjected to, they sound great. But why don't the wealthier school districts have charter schools? Is it because they have properly funded their schools in the first place? Why so many corporate bailouts (golden parachutes) and nothing for the most vulnerable?

Perhaps if our students' parents jobs weren't shipped to sweatshops overseas, they'd have a more stable family life. Perhaps with the basic needs fulfilled, there would be more time to focus on school?

And there are other solutions, too. Most have to do with taking away the sabotage. For instance, last year public schools were required to include special ed and non-English speaking students in the ISAT test scores that determine whether a school is 'failing' or not. Talk about throwing off the average! How about giving us enough text books in the first place? Or paying teachers a dignified enough salary so they didn't have to work at Wal Mart? Etc.

Richard, when you respond, please, disclose to us who your funders are (Bill and Melinda Gates?), how much of a salary you are withdrawing and how long you were a teacher. Thanks.

xian / January 18, 2009 1:23 PM

Look at the data you cite: It's non-scientific and you are being played:

1) The limited number of students you refer to will by definition outperform their peers because of the following issues:
a)More resources--charters receive the same per pupil funding that neighborhood schools do plus bonus capital projects funds, corporate donations, ONS extra funds, and probably more that we haven't found in the budget yet? Anyone doing an honest assessment of charter schools would disclose this information. Because it must be considered in order to determine what is best for kids. However, this isn't an experiment--it's a sales job.
b)Selective enrollment: The vast majority of charter schools have a process to select their kids before they even reach the lottery. The amount of parental involvement it takes to fill out an application is greater than what many kids in the system have. Furthermore, many charters have parental contracts of volunteer hours, etc. If you don't serve the same kids, then your data is meaningless. If you went to the top scoring high school in the nation, does that mean you attended the best school? Not if the kids tested in as the best scorers in the nation.
c)Intentional sabotage. Does the Board cut charter teachers in the middle of the year? Does it inflict classroom sizes of 62 in charter school double period math classes? If it did, what would that do to scores?
4) Dumping of kids. The charter school operators tend to be business oriented. It is simply not short-term profitable to service ELL and Special education students. If you read the CEO's own reports, the enrollment of these types are much lower in charter schools. Furthermore, if you would read Substance or any source that has been doing actual reporting on the environment of the Chicago charters, you would see blatant neglect of the Special Education student they do have--utter violation of the law. If school operators will intentionally abuse special education students because it is profitable, they have no business running schools whatsoever.

Your second stereotype of the "inflexible teaching methods" of neighborhood school teachers is offensive, and neglects the reality that the CPS Board--the same group pushing chartization--is pushing IDS--canned, corporatization of curriculum that destroys instructional creativity. And has violated the state's own rules on professional development consistently.

How does a charter school foster creativity? The recipe for good instruction is professional development + academic freedom.

Then you feign caring about traditional schools. You know what would help traditional schools? Adequate resources for instruction at those schools. I don't mean more money for education and that's it.

I mean the ending of patronage to charter school operators and everybody's aunt, uncle and second cousin who is making money off of our kids while we have to buy our own paper, and make our own copies. While the Board you support is buying itself cappuccino makers and paying for transportation for middle class students, I'd love to not have to buy bus passes for my kids so they can get to school.

Your last sentence is the most interesting. The proof is there--Chicago Charters are so lacking in accountability that they can sexually assault children and then fire the whistle blower with no response from the Board of Education.

Business style does not breed accountability--it breeds advertising and marketing taking precedence over the well-being of those receiving services.

It might be fun to play push political philosophy's with Other People's Children, but it has no place in education.

Accountability and improvement in education can be made and it will only be made without the cooking of data and spending of taxpayer dollars on advertising schemes and cherry-picking of kids.

Standing for Excellence / January 25, 2009 5:40 PM

I's a shame that so many people focus on fear and defend failure when the facts demonstrate that charters public schools are changing lives for students and teachers in Illinois. Last year, the RAND Corporation issued a study that showed:
1. Charters enroll students with the same academic track record as other Chicago public school
2. charter students are 7% more likely to graduate from high school
3. charters students are 11% more likely to enroll in post high school education

The University of Chicago's 2007 study showed that charter students are not only significantly more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, they are admitted to highly competitive colleges at much higher rates than other CPS students.

More importantly, students, teachers and parents want to attend charters. Over 80% of parents polled in Rockford, Springfield and Peoria support the charter model and want to see charters added to their public school systems.

If you want a reliable source of information about charters, go to
And talk to parents desperate for good schools for their children and students who want teachers to expect them to succeed and are invested in helping them succeed.

Kristin / February 13, 2009 2:46 PM

I think everyone here has interesting points--there are some negative aspects to some charters schools. I taught in a St. Louis City charter school for four years, and I was lucky to be a part of a great charter school. However, there were many charters in the city that were not as well run. I did see some of the other local charter schools turning away students with IEPs, students who would have increased their budgets by a dramatic amount. My school did not do that. Overall, I think that the danger in charter schools is the risk that they are not being run or managed by a good company or group of staff members. But isn't this the danger in public schools as well? I'm not trying to over simplify here, but I think that each school choice should be well-researched by parents and communities alike. Options are essential when educating a diverse group of students. There were students in my classes over the four years that excelled in smaller classrooms, a smaller school, and an environment with stronger parental involvement and overall accountability. There were also students who would have been better off in a huge traditional public middle school. Just because charter schools ARE different does not make them inherently flaw-free or perfect for everyone. It also does not mean they are a plague that needs to be abolished. They should still be available as a choice.

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