Unmasking the Chicago charter scam

As education justice activists protest Rahm Emanuel's latest school privatization bonanza, Kevin Moore and Rachel Cohen cut through the pro-charter school myths.

Chicagoans rally against new charter schools ahead of a Board of Education vote  (Ervin Lopez)Chicagoans rally against new charter schools ahead of a Board of Education vote (Ervin Lopez)

CHICAGOANS ARE joining together in a growing battle to stem the proliferation of charter schools.

Less than a year after his devastating closure of 50 schools last spring, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the millionaires on his handpicked Chicago Public Schools (CPS) board are preparing to give their stamp of approval for 31 new charter schools to open over the next two years.

On Tuesday, January 21, members of the Chicago Teachers Union led parents, students and community activists in an overnight vigil outside the board's headquarters downtown, contending with arctic temperatures to keep up an overnight presence before a board vote on the charters scheduled for the next morning.

The protesters drew on a series of public forums held across the city to discuss why charters threaten the stability of and sap resources from a strong system of neighborhood public schools.

On January 14, nearly 200 people, including teachers, students, parents and other members of the community, braved another typically frigid night to come out to a meeting opposing charter school expansion. The forum, held in the Brighton Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side, was hosted by Raise Your Hand, an organization of parents against school "reform."

The panelists ranged from education researchers to high school students. They shared revealing information and firsthand experiences that highlighted the inequalities and corruption in Chicago charter schools.

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ONE OF the biggest misconceptions about charters is that the funds to run them come from private sources. While charters do receive donations and some private grants, 75 percent of their total funding comes from public resources.

To take one example, the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which operates 16 charter schools in Chicago and the surrounding area, has received $280 million in public funds in the past five years. In 2009, UNO received a $98 million grant from the state of Illinois that is believed to be the largest public subsidy for a charter school operator in the country.

In addition, one-third of charters operate under an arrangement where they pay $1 in rent for the use of public school buildings. Charters also receive city resources in the form of "in-kind services." These handouts for charters are especially insulting when CPS is once again project a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall--despite slashing $100 million from traditional school budgets last year and claiming that the mass school closings were necessary in part because of lack of funding.

One of the school board's leading excuses for closing neighborhood schools is low enrollment. Yet charters have been receiving increased funding despite declining enrollment. Neighborhood schools and magnets have experienced declining budgets with less of a decline in enrollment--or even a growing number of students.

The inequalities between neighborhood public schools and charters aren't just about funding. One of the panelists at the January 14 forum, a student, described the demoralizing disciplinary policies imposed by charters. She said that she suspended because she helped pull a friend out of a fight--despite the fact that she had maintained a 4.0 grade point average. She told the meeting audience about the effect of the suspension on her morale.

Another student said that teachers at Nobel charters are required to dole out frequent "demerits," including for poor performance on assignments in classes stacked against individualized instruction. Demerits add up to detentions, for which students are fined $5 in fees!

Another lie that charter school opponents are unmasking is the claim that charters perform better than neighborhood schools. In reality, according to researchers on the forum panel, 80 percent of charter students showed no improvement or a worse performance in reading, compared to students in traditional public schools. For math, the figure was 63 percent.

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ONE OF the other little-discussed byproducts of the drive to open charters is a surge in corruption.

On the hot seat right now is UNO, which is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the state of Illinois for giving millions of dollars from state grants to construction contractors owned by relatives of top UNO executives or the charter's close political allies.

UNO was begun in the mid-1980s as a community organization, but it has ridden the charter school wave, thanks to its close ties to the mayor's office and other political leaders. Its charter network has posed as a project for uplifting the Latino community, but its schools disproportionately deny bilingual and Spanish language instruction, according to researchers.

UNO CEO Juan Rangel, who was a co-chair of Emanuel's 2011 campaign for mayor, resigned in disgrace late last year in the face of the spreading scandal.

Now, the corrupt politicking surrounding other charter operators is beginning to come to light. The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that two of Emanuel's close allies could be the landlords for proposed charter schools run by Concept Schools and Be the Change Charter Schools, collecting rent from money provided by tapayers.

Rev. Charles Jenkins--who was on Emanuel's transition team after his 2011 victory, gave the invocation at the mayor's swearing-in ceremony and was appointed to the City Colleges of Chicago board--is pastor of a church that owns the South Side building where one of the charters would open. Real estate broker Paul Levy, who vacations with Emanuel and helped pick out the mayor's North Side home, controls the other planned charter site.

People like Emanuel and his old friend Bruce Rauner, a venture capitalist and now a declared candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, like to preach the virtues of charter schools--but they aren't interested in sending their own kids to a charter.

Emanuel's three children attend the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School, a private school. As for Rauner, when his daughter failed to qualify for the top-rated Walter Payton High College Prep, a public selective enrollment high school, he called then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan--now Barack Obama's education secretary--to have the rejected admission overturned, which it was. To show his appreciation, Rauner had his family foundation give a $250,000 donation to Payton endowment fund.

One issue that didn't come up at the January 14 forum was how the charter school drive affects teachers. Most charters are non-union--they rely on recruiting newer teachers who are paid less than experienced teachers and have a high turnover rate, which, of course, affects the students.

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SINCE 1997, 135 neighborhood public schools have been closed in Chicago--and 122 charter schools have opened.

Charter schools have to be approved by the CPS board. But charters rejected at this level can appeal to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, which can overrule the city. Such was the case when CPS denied a proposal for two charters ran by Concept Schools Inc. The state agency not only overruled the board, but ordered CPS to give the new schools 33 percent more funding per student than what other charters receive.

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat, is a supporter of Concept Schools, and also a backer of the $98 million grant for UNO.

Despite the many issues with charter schools--lack of transparency and oversight, overstated claims of admissions demand, disciplinary systems that not only demoralize students but act as a revenue stream, and much more--Rahm Emanuel wants to open 31 more charters in the next two years. Despite the determined protest outside CPS headquarters, the mayor is almost certain to get his way when his handpicked board votes.

This market-based school "reform" is not about choice, as many charter school proponents claim, but about money-making schemes for politicians and the politically connected. Any time an organization running a school has the word incorporated at the end of its name, nothing good will come of it.

With more charter schools popping up in Chicago and elsewhere, traditional public schools pay the price. City and state politicians are ensuring that more public funds go to charter schools, while neighborhood schools deal with drastic budget cuts.

The big question is what can be done to stop the expansion of charter schools in Chicago. Speakers at the January 14 forum stressed that you can't blame parents for wanting to send their child to a charter school that, on the surface anyway, has all the bells and whistles that public funds can provide. But, they stressed, it's what goes on behind school doors that matters.

Information is power. Forums like the Raise Your Hand meeting are offering an excellent place to get vital statistics and firsthand accounts, especially from students, that tell the truth about charters. And they are building solidarity among teachers, students and parents, and the community, which can be the basis for taking a stand against the charter school invasion.