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Why Everyone Is So Mad About Today’s Charter School Vote

The proposals are evaluated before CPS votes on them—but the media, unions, and parents are kept in the dark about it.

Community groups gather for a protest outside the proposed site for a new charter school in the Austin community of Chicago, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.   Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

At first glance, the public handwringing over today’s Chicago Board of Education charter school vote sounds some familiar chords. In advance of today’s vote—CPS officials recommended moving ahead with seven of the 17 charter schools proposed for the next school year, and the board is likely to follow Update: went for it—a handful of CTU members camped out in front of the board offices in freezing temperatures overnight. Meanwhile, parents groups like Raise Your Hand have been speaking out against charter expansion to any media outlet that will listen.

The two-second distillation of their argument: Charters divert resources from neighborhood schools, and instead of greenlighting more charter proposals, CPS should focus on fixing what’s broken in the neighborhood institutions that are already serving hundreds of thousands of kids.

It’s actually a more complicated debate than that, and charter advocates have plenty to say on the subject that’s reasonable when you stop and listen. (Though from the excellent Twitter feeds from @WBEZeducation and @CatalystChicago it sounds like today’s public comment section of the meeting is rowdy and disorganized.) But it’s hard to fault the unions and the anti-charter parents for getting so mad: They’re being kept in the dark about the particular details of the individual proposals, and as the Chicago magazine and Better Government Association co-investigation on the UNO collapse revealed, those details are precisely where trouble can start to brew.

Here’s how charter expansion works: Before a charter operator can open a school in Chicago, he or she has to submit a proposal to the Office of New Schools (run by CPS). This happens every fall. Each proposal goes in front of a committee that evaluates it in several categories: from the proposed school’s mission, to its curriculum, to its financing. (This latter category is a particularly complicated alchemy that few, if anyone, really understands; again see UNO as Exhibit A). Those “evaluations” help inform the recommendations that are eventually made to the Board of Ed, which votes on which zygotes will become fully-functioning schools.

But as I learned when reporting the UNO story, no one outside of CPS gets to see these  evaluations before the vote. Not the unions, not the parents groups, not the media. On a related note, when I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to see the results of analysis for past UNO proposals, for example, most of the scores (and the names of the individuals who were asked to weigh in) were 90 percent redacted by CPS before I was handed the file. And this was for proposals from as far back as 2008—proposals that had already become schools.

So here’s a thought: If Chicago is actually going to have a productive debate about charter schools, a good first step would be for CPS (which answers to the mayor’s office) to stop  keeping the public in the dark.

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