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Chicago’s cold shoulder to charters

Students leave Noble Street College Prep charter school at the end of the day in October 2015. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune)

Is Chicago earning a dubious reputation as the place that quality charters go to die? For students’ sakes, we hope not.

But evidence mounts that charters face an increasingly chilly political and financial climate in Chicago — and in the Illinois General Assembly.

Last year, for instance, prospective Chicago Public Schools charter operators proposed opening 21 new campuses in the city starting in the 2017-18 school year. Not a single one survived the grueling approval process. Not one. What a devastating disappointment for thousands of prospective charter students and parents who want a better education than their current CPS neighborhood schools provide.

This year, 17 charter school operators raised their hands to open as many as 20 new campuses. Again, that’s a measure of avid student and parent interest in the superior education — often more rigorous academics, often better disciplined environments — that many charters offer. How many of those 20 will ultimately open? Even with permission, how many can afford to do so?

And now comes state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, with a new charter-choking idea: Block the opening of any new charter in a district that ranks in the bottom tiers of the Illinois State Board of Education’s financial ratings list. Among the districts is — you guessed it — CPS.

The district, chronically short of cash, has whacked budgets for charters and neighborhood schools. As CPS’ student population plummets, pressure grows to close more neighborhood schools. And yes, critics are right to say that by opening more charters, CPS may hasten the demise of underperforming neighborhood schools when their students choose charters instead.

But that is not a tragedy. It’s a triumph. Better schools — charter or neighborhood — should displace poor performers. Some charters, like Urban Prep and the Noble Network of Charter Schools, are impressive. Some others aren’t. A floundering charter should be closed as quickly as any other school that fails to educate students.

Last year, CPS leaders foolishly agreed to a cap on charter enrollment as part of a new Chicago Teachers Union contract. CPS claims the district can still add thousands of charter students under the terms of that agreement. We hope so. But the cap is a de facto enrollment limit that eventually could strangle charter growth.

The district also agreed to limit the number of charter schools approved by the Chicago Board of Education. It has moved aggressively to close flailing charters and, as you’ll see in the accompanying editorial, has taken on the Illinois State Charter School Commission. But CPS’ goal shouldn’t be propping up, or throttling, a certain type of school. The goal should be to give Chicago’s children the best possible education.

We hope CPS matches its desire to close underperforming charters with an equal fervor to help quality new charters flourish. One place to start: Shuttered CPS schools. The district is desperate to unload school buildings from the 2013 closings. Buyers welcome! Please bid!

Except, charter operators need not apply. They’re forbidden to take over these buildings, CPS says, under terms of a five-year moratorium set to expire in 2018. CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel tied their own hands with that foolish moratorium, squelching charter innovation and discouraging quality operators from planting their flags in Chicago.

The sooner the moratorium ends, the better. Wouldn’t it be better to repurpose a closed neighborhood school as a thriving charter than to mourn an essentially dead building that can cost CPS scarce cash to maintain and that attracts vandals?

During the debate over school closings in 2012, CPS released a list of 136 schools that were more than half empty. Officials said an astonishing 330 schools — half the district’s buildings — were underutilized. Since then, CPS has lost more students. Schools have more empty seats. CPS could have to close many more buildings.

Again, that is not a tragedy for students. It could be a first step toward a CPS centered on the wishes of students and their parents, not on the wishes of employees, educrats and other adult stakeholders. In successful industries, consumers’ choices drive competition and force improvement. Yet in Chicago’s public education industry, the demand for more charters goes unfulfilled — even as fed-up families flee neighborhood schools and that roster of dead buildings appears likely to grow. So ask yourself:

What if Chicago instead eagerly responded to what families want? What if better schools displaced faltering schools? What if every child who wanted to transfer to a better school could do so? What if demand from families, not labor pacts or politicians, determined how many charter schools operate here? What if CPS reduced its costly-to-maintain real estate inventory and poured the considerable savings into improving Chicago’s charter and neighborhood schools?

That is, what if CPS helped its best schools thrive and expand, whether they’re labeled "charter" or "neighborhood," and closed its losers? That’s the best way for this district to attract and retain students. That’s the best way for this shrinking district to survive.

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