There's a debate smoldering, just out of the media spotlight, behind the scenes of Chicago public policy. It's one that pits some of the city's wealthiest individuals and most powerful political interests against a larger but more disparate group of activists, organizers and union workers. At stake, at least according to both sides' rhetoric, is nothing less than the fate of the city's children.
The debate is between supporters of charter schools -- with names like Pritzker, Zell, and to a certain degree Brizard and Emanuel -- and believers in reforming the traditional public school model.
A simple request, made this week by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, sheds some light on this debate: what's at stake, who's involved, and where both sides stand.
The request was described in its most basic form by the Chicago Tribune headline Wednesday: "Charter schools press CPS for more money."
In fact, what INCS was asking the Chicago Public Schools for was a higher proportion of per-student funding; to fully understand what that means, a little background on charters is required.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS FOR LESS?
Though they sometimes receive additional funding from federal and private grants, charter schools are public schools -- they get tax dollars just like a regular public school. In Illinois, as in many states, part of the reason why charters were adopted (in 1996 in Illinois) was because they promised to do more for less. In many cases, they provided their own facilities, and since they were hiring non-union teachers and running their own budgets, they didn't need as much money from the government.
In Chicago, charters currently receive between 70 and 76 percent of the per-student funding that traditional public schools (TPS) do. That is, schools receive funding in part based on how many students they have, but for every dollar that a student would receive in funding at a TPS, he only brings 75 cents to the charter.
That number was cut by four percent last year. So INCS went to the Chicago Public Schools this week asking for some of that back.
"Charters have been chronically underfunded in Chicago," said Andrew Broy, the president of INCS. "What we’re really seeking is equity for students enrolled in charter schools," he added, pointing out that a disproportionate number of charter school students are African American or Latino, and come from disadvantaged communities.
The other side of this debate, though, doesn't buy that argument. "They're trying to rewrite history," said Dr. Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, an organization that uses research and policy analysis to develop reforms for urban school systems.
Moore points to the old "more-for-less" argument, saying that the charters promised that they'd use private-sector efficiencies to require less public money. Specifically, they don't hire union teachers, and they have a comparatively high teacher turnover rate, meaning they can pay their young, non-unionized workforce a good deal less than TPS schools are required to. To complain of inequity in funding now, Moore says, smacks of revisionism.
Broy anticipated the more-for-less argument when he spoke with The Huffington Post. "We still believe that by and large," he said. "There are certain administrative costs that are properly borne by the district, whether or not a charter is there."
They don't want 100 percent equity with CPS per-student funding, he said, but rather "in the 90 to 95 percent range."
And then, Broy made the really divisive point:
"We should fund performance, fund what works. It's clear that charters outperform their comparable neighborhood schools."
Exactly how clear that is, of course, depends on who you ask.
Many leaders in the city, and around the country, are firmly committed to that point of view. Arne Duncan, who helped plant the seed for charter school growth as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, is now the U.S. Secretary of Education, and he has been an advocate for charter schools. In the Chicago mayoral race, Rahm Emanuel said during a debate that “when you take out Northside, and you take out Walter Payton (two selective-enrollment public high schools), the seven best-performing high schools are charters.”
(This, it turns out, isn’t true. It took a group of high school students posting a YouTube video to correct the mayor on that one — none of the seven best-performing high schools, according to the Chicago Tribune, is a charter.)
And new Chicago schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard also showed an affinity for the charter model as head of Rochester Public Schools, so much so in fact that he was widely reviled by the teachers union there.
When Broy was pressed to provide details on his claim that charters outperform neighborhood schools, he cited a study that’s well-known in education policy circles: the 2009 study [PDF] by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University entitled “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance In 16 States.”
That study compared charter schools to public schools by pairing each student at a charter with a student from the neighborhood school he might have otherwise attended who is similar demographically, racially, socioeconomically, and in age. It then compared how charter students performed in comparison with their “twin” students in TPS schools.
The results in Chicago were that overall, charter students showed no changes in their math scores compared to their traditional-school counterparts. They showed a slight but statistically significant growth in reading.
As with everything in this debate, though, it’s not that simple.
African-American and Latino students showed significant relative losses at charter schools in Chicago, in both reading and math. Low-income students overall, however, showed growth in both areas. Explaining the results to The Huffington Post, CREDO researcher Macke Raymond said that this implies that Chicago’s charters are particularly good at dealing with white students in poverty, a population that she said was larger than she’d expected.
The data is ambiguous enough that either side can draw conclusions from it. What it certainly isn’t, though, is a clear mandate that Chicago’s charters are blowing its traditional schools out of the water.
For Don Moore, that ambiguity is proof enough.
“Emphasis should not be on investing money and energy in starting more charter schools that turn out not to achieve on average any better than the average public school,” Moore said. Instead, the focus should be on finding the best practices of public schools that succeed against the odds, and helping spread them throughout the district.
FATE, AND A BUDGET DEFICIT
The powers that be may not see things Moore’s way, though. The mayor and the schools CEO are both supportive of charters, and given that CPS is facing an enormous budget deficit, the fact that charters require less per-student cash from the district might be incentive enough on its own keep spawning more of them.
That deficit, however, doesn’t bode well for INCS’s request for more money. Broy says that the 4 percent cut charters took last year cost $11 million, which he characterizes as a mere drop in the bucket of CPS’s $6.5 billion budget. “Can I find $11 million in the budget to fund the charter fix? Sure I can,” he said, pointing to a number of systemic inefficiencies.
But the system will surely be making those cuts and more just to close the deficit, and it remains to be seen if there will be any extra cash at the end of the day to send back to the charters. Whether or not INCS gets what it asks for could be a good barometer of just how far CEO Brizard is willing to go to support the charter model.
Either way, this is just one early volley in a battle that will only get noisier, and more public, in the months and years to come.