Analysis: Privatizing public schools

By AL SWANSON, UPI Urban Affairs Correspondent  |  Sept. 23, 2004 at 5:19 PM
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CHICAGO, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- The Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved sweeping reforms that go well beyond mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that will change the face of public education in the nation's third-largest school system.

More than 50 groups have filed letters of intent to operate 100 new publicly funded, privately operated charter, contract and performance schools that will replace 60 low-performing public schools. The program, called Renaissance 2010, will involve a third of all new schools over the next six years.

The teachers union and some parents groups are unhappy about being left out of such radical changes, but administrators say the time has come to end the status quo.

The Chicago Teachers Union calls the plan a "risky experiment" not good for students. Parents are worried that closing neighborhood schools could leave already under-performing African-American and Hispanic students in poor areas further behind in academic achievement.

They wonder why the smaller privately run schools are coming in areas that are rapidly gentrifying.

About 90 percent of the system's 431,000 students are minorities, and despite district-by-district improvement, test scores at some schools have chronically lagged behind. The new privatized schools would not have to meet the same union regulations as the regular public schools.

"We're not against change and we're not against improving schools," said new CTU President Marilyn Stewart. "I don't want anyone to think that the teachers union is against change and out here just to protect jobs. We're out here to protect children."

Veteran union teachers can be replaced by lower-paid, less-experienced teachers in the new schools. Critics say the top-down plan seeks to privatize schools to slash labor costs and in effect gives private business control over public education.

"If you want us to get on board, you need to slow this train down," Stewart told administrators this week. Teachers want evidence that charter, contract and performance schools can better educate students than traditional public schools.

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan calls Renaissance 2010 a great opportunity for parents to shape the future for their children. Parents and community leaders will have the opportunity to help design six of the new schools, he said.

Duncan said children who attend schools to be closed will be guaranteed a slot in a new neighborhood school that opens in their community.

"These are neighborhood schools designed to serve the children and families in those communities," said Duncan. "There's a great deal of public support and interest in creating great new schools for our children."

Renaissance schools, unlike magnet schools, would not be allowed to pick and choose students based on test scores.

About 33 groups have proposed opening new charter schools, 16 "performance" schools that would operate under teachers union rules, and five "contract" schools. Contract schools are similar to charter schools but are run by independent organizations not covered by the teachers union contract.

Charter schools have been authorized by Illinois law since 1995, but contract and performance schools would be new to the system. All new schools would have five-year performance contracts reviewed annually. But they would have much greater autonomy than traditional public schools, with authority to set the length of the school day, devise their own curriculum and control their own budget and staffing.

Half of teachers at the new charter schools would have to be state certified, while all teachers at contract and performance schools would need certification.

The No Child Left Behind Act sets the goal of having every public school teacher "highly qualified."

Charter schools also would be exempt from having elected Local School Councils, a hallmark of Chicago's decade-old school reforms that created the parent-community councils to oversee individual schools and closed failing schools.

Renaissance schools that failed to meet stated goals would face takeover or closure after five years.

Duncan said the school system was neutral on the issue of governance.

"That decision should be left up to the people running the school. Our only requirement is that a majority of the people on the governing board be local. We just want schools that teach students how to read," he said.

Parents are not sold on the market-oriented school-reform plan. About 100 people blocked the driveway at the home of Board of Education chief officer David Vitale Wednesday night demanding more information over a bullhorn.

The protesters said Vitale, a millionaire paid $1 a year to manage school board business, was the "architect" of Renaissance 2010 and was behind a plan to close 20 South Side schools. "We believe he's the hidden hand," Shannon Bennett, a community activist, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

School Board President Michael Scott said he had no idea why one school with improving test schools had been included on a list of schools targeted for closure. The list, which included some low-enrollment schools, has been discarded.

Of the system's 600 schools a record 212 -- 167 elementary and 45 high schools -- are on probation for the 2004-05 school year, up from 50 elementary schools and 32 high schools last year. Duncan noted test scores had improved at 86 schools on probation.

"Renaissance 2010 is our commitment to turn around those schools that continue to under-perform," said Scott. "This policy is a blueprint for creating great schools that break the mold, bring in innovative outside partners and offer a great education to our children."

Charter schools, which are operated by independent groups ranging from universities to private enterprises, are not a panacea. They are supposed to offer school choice and accountability, not more chaos.

The collapse of 60 charter schools in California in August left 5,495 students scrambling to find schools to attend this fall and many teachers searching for jobs. The California Charter Academy was the largest chain of publicly financed charter schools to go bankrupt.

CCA went under when the state withheld $6 million for 10 satellite campuses -- some storefronts in low- and middle-income communities with few traditional classes -- that were set up without proper supervision by local school districts. The state said not enough money was spent on student services. The New York Times said the for-profit charter empire received $100 million in state financing over five years.

About 9 percent of charter schools have failed, and education officials in some states, including California, where nearly 180,000 students attend charter schools, now require more standardized testing.

"The vast majority of the state's 537 public charter schools are doing an effective job of educating their students," said Caprice Young, chief executive officer of the California Charter Schools Association. "After no longer tolerating this one bad apple, the charter school community rallied together to ensure that their former students have a soft landing into high-quality programs."

Despite some terrific success stories, recent reports indicate charter schools are performing about as well as traditional schools. There are some really good ones and some bad apples.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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