The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
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Thousands turn out to charter school rally
Despite getting a big funding increase this year and CPS projecting huge future deficits, charter school leaders brought together thousands of their parents and other proponents to rally for more charters and increased funding.
The rally at the UIC Forum took place on the same day teachers were voting to ratify a teachers’ contract that was resolved after a seven-day strike. Leaders said they needed to make sure their issues were not overshadowed by opponents of charter schools, many of whom were vocal during the strike.
Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization which runs UNO charter schools, told the crowd it was important to show the muscle of charter school supporters.
“There are forces out there that want to take away your voice and your choice, and we're not going to let them,” Rangel said.
He invited parents to join him in lobbying for a state law that would require charter schools to receive as much funding as neighborhood schools. Currently, the state allows districts to set charter funding at 75 percent to 125 percent of what other schools receive.
In the most recent legislative session, Rangel said, legislation to equalize charter funding fell 15 votes short of passing.
Several parents said they were worried that CPS would look to the charter schools to pay for teacher raises and other things promised in the teacher contract. CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus says the district is still identifying where it will find money for contract costs, but adds that no dollar will come from the classroom.
After a big increase this year, the district says per-pupil funding rates at charter schools are close to, if not on par, with the average district per pupil rate.
A compact the district signed with the Gates Foundation committed it to funding charter schools and neighborhood schools at the same per-pupil rate. Rangel did not say that the district is out of compliance with the compact, but says charters are still in discussions with CPS about potentially restoring a 4 percent cut to charters that occurred several years ago and making sure the funding is equal.
“If CPS is serious (about using) charters as a viable vehicle for improving the system... you are not going to attract high-performing operators tot he district without a funding increase for charters,” Rangel said, such as Rocketship or additional KIPP schools.
“I am worried, as we begin to grow the deficit more and more, that charters will get lost in the mix, says Sofia Mendez, a parent at UNO's Bartolome de las Casas campus. She thinks CPS should find savings by cutting network or central offices.
Rangel said that expanding charter schools could be a solution for the 123,000 CPS students in underperforming schools. Currently, there are 52,000 students in the district's charters.
After his speech, Rangel said he would also like the state General Assembly to do away with the charter school cap, and pointed out that in some places, like New Orleans, charters are the norm.
Noble Street Muchin College Prep parent Mary Passi, whose son is a sophomore at the school, said the school provided an alternative to sending her son to either the turnaround Tilden High School or to Catholic school.
“He loves that they help him in all the areas he's weak in... Teachers stay longer hours, we don't have to worry about them going on strike,” Passi said. “He only has 20 kids in his class, so the numbers are better than in a (neighborhood) school, it'd be 32 or 35 (there).”
She says that the school charges parents a $180 supplies fee. She doesn't mind, but says that if charter schools received more funding, that might not be necessary.
Parent Stephanie McGarry, who has sent three of her five children to charters, says that she loves the behavior point system used at Erie Elementary Charter School because parents get a weekly update on how their children are doing. “At Erie, we believe in heart, mind and soul the whole student,” McGarry says.
McGarry says she wishes people didn't view charter schools as taking away from neighborhood schools. Instead of closing under-enrolled neighborhood schools, McGarry thinks the district could attract more students by offering additional programs and lowering class sizes.
But Elsa Gonzalez, a parent at UNO's Hector Garcia campus, said that the public system has failed for too many years.
“We parents will do whatever it takes to find the extra money,” she said, noting a successful parent lobbying effort several years ago to get state legislators to set aside funds for the construction of UNO charter campus buildings.
Said Rangel: “We are going to organize our parents to ensure they have more choices.”