Charter-School Growth Fuels Chicago Teacher Fears

Charter-School Growth Fuels Fears of Striking Chicago Teachers
The leader of the one of Chicago's biggest charter operations rejected the suggestion that his schools are exploiting the strike. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago schools’ union walkout sent the parents of 350,000 students hunting for child care for a third straight day yesterday. Yanira Robles, mother of five, wasn’t one of them.

“I feel lucky that they are in a school that is not on strike,” said Robles, 37, whose children attend Esmeralda Santiago Charter School in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. “It was a relief. I want them to be learning.”

Santiago is one of about 100 public charter schools remaining open through the third-largest U.S. city’s first strike in 25 years. Serving more than 50,000 students, they employ mostly nonunion teachers -- putting them at the heart of the dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The number of charter schools, which receive public money while being freed of many work and collective-bargaining rules, has doubled in Chicago since 2005, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group. The alliance says more than 2 million U.S. children -- 4 percent of those in public education --attend more than 5,000 charter schools. That’s about six times more than in the 1999-2000 school year.

Chicago teachers worry that as those numbers increase, their union jobs will be lost to nonunion charter schools. Those concerns were fueled by a report in the Chicago Tribune yesterday that said the Emanuel administration, which has called for 60 new charter schools by 2017, was considering closing as many as 120 traditional public schools.

‘Personal Attack’

“It’s a personal attack on us,” said John Kugler, a coordinator for the union and a former public school teacher. “They want to eliminate our jobs and privatize them.”

Asked about the report, Sarah Hamilton, Emanuel’s spokeswoman, said, “We haven’t had any conversations. We’re only focusing on ending the strike.”

Charter supporters say they offer an alternative to failing schools, especially for low-income students. A 2010 survey by the consulting company Mathematica Policy Research compared students enrolled at charters with those who applied but weren’t admitted. It found that overall performance was roughly similar, though poor and low-achieving students at charters showed significant gains over peers at traditional public schools.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans turned to charter schools as a way to overhaul public education. Its charters now enroll more than 70 percent of students, a larger share than in any other U.S. district. Washington and Los Angeles also have been hotbeds for the movement.

No ‘Springboard’

The leader of one of Chicago’s biggest charter operations rejected the union’s suggestion that his schools are exploiting the strike.

“I don’t think it’s a strategy in the charter-school community to use this situation as a springboard,” said Juan Rangel, president of the United Neighborhood Organization charter network, which runs 13 campuses serving 6,500 students. “But we see that more parents are becoming interested in charter schools, wondering why is it that 52,000 kids are in school right now.”

Charters operate without many of the rules governing traditional institutions, offering a number of alternative approaches -- from regular home visits to teaching yoga relaxation techniques, said Melissa Sweazy, director of the Esmeralda Santiago school, which is part of UNO’s network.

“There is more autonomy in charter schools to make academic decisions,” Sweazy said. “I feel like we are transforming the community.”

Smaller Salaries

Charter-school educators typically make less than their counterparts in Chicago. The average public-school teacher salary is $74,839, according to the Chicago Public Schools website. Those at Chicago charters make an average of $51,000, said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

The alternative schools have been a popular target on picket lines across the city this week. “Rahm, Brizard: We’re no fools! Corporate money can’t buy our schools!” went one chant meant for Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who supports charter schools, some of which are run by for-profit entities.

Opponents say higher-performing charter schools cherry-pick the best students in order to improve their test scores.

“Where they do well is where they kick out behavior problems,” said John Cusick, the union representative at William H. Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park on the south side. “And where do they come? Right into our schools. And we educate them with love.”

School Performance

While acknowledging that some charter schools underachieve, Broy said the majority do better than their counterparts.

“There are some low-performing schools, but the notion that charters are not doing as well is not supported by data,” he said.

At Esmeralda Santiago, at least one parent agreed. Robles said she has seen her children’s grades improve “tremendously” since she moved them from a public school a year ago.

“Their self-esteem went up because of this,” she said. “The kids are happy.”

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