06/04/2013 03:57 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

A New Era of Possibility for Chicago Students

Last week, Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, turnaround five schools, and co-locate 11 others -- marking the largest school restructuring in the city's history and the most schools ever closed at a single time in the nation. This action, while a shock to the city's public education system, is one that has the potential to usher in a new era of opportunity for Chicago students, provided we work together on the transition plan to ensure that each affected student is enrolled in a higher quality school.

The decision to close low performing or underutilized schools is difficult and should never be taken lightly. Schools are meaningful anchors woven deep into the fabric of the communities they serve. At the same time, the needs of students must serve as the driving force for all decisions. And the simple reality is that difficult decisions have been deferred for too long in our city and limited resources spread too thin. We are hopeful that CPS' decision will enable us to allocate the necessary educational resources more broadly across the city, including in neighborhoods that have too often been ill-served.

We at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools will be part of this solution. We have historically located schools in under-served neighborhoods across the city and schools in our membership stand ready to serve any Chicago students looking for a high-quality local option. We have always maintained that a school district cannot close its way to quality. But in an era of scarce resources, making thoughtful decisions about investment is critical to developing a winning strategy for the children of Chicago.

Some have claimed that charter school enrollment increases in recent years served as the catalyst for closure. The simple reality, though, is that Chicago has been losing students for decades. These demographic shifts predate the expansion of the charter sector and have been exacerbated by economic realities that have driven thousands of Chicago families out of the city. Moreover, if one examines enrollment trends over the past three years in the district, it becomes clear that charter schools are the main reason the city's school enrollment has stabilized. After losing 30,000 students since 2000, the city's public school enrollment has held steady at approximately 403,000 the past three years. During the same time, charter school enrollment has increased by 12,000 students. Rather than contributing to under-enrollment, charter schools are actually keeping students and families in the city.

Of course, no one supports charter expansion merely for the sake of charter expansion. Charter schools are successful only if they prepare students academically and provide students with the skills to compete in a rapidly changing economy. On those points, the data are very promising. According to CPS' own performance data, charter school students are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to enroll in competitive four-year colleges than their peers in traditional public schools. Parents have gotten this message. In fact, a poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune and the Joyce Foundation indicates that 68 percent of Chicagoans agree that it should be easier for charters to open in neighborhoods with under-performing schools. Charter schools, and other smart choice options, must be part of the solution in Chicago.

As a society, we are all stakeholders in our children's education. For this to be an effective and positive transition, all of us who have engaged as competing factions must now come together for the sake of our city, our neighborhoods, and our children. As adults, it is our collective responsibility to make good on our promise to ensure access to high-quality schools and a world-class education for all Chicago students. Their future demands nothing less.