Chicago Makes Unprecedented Offer to Union: Zero Charter Growth

A proposed four-year deal between the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union calls for an unprecedented moratorium on charter school growth, regardless of the future availability of qualified charter operators or demand from families.

Many state charter school laws have included campus or enrollment caps, but such restrictions have not typically been part of a district’s collective bargaining agreement. This marks the first time a district with exclusive charter authorizing authority has agreed to restrict charter growth as part of a teachers contract.  (Past teacher contracts in Milwaukee capped charter enrollment at district-authorized charter schools, but these provisions had no effect on other charter school authorizers in the city, such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee Common Council. Moreover, this practice ended in Wisconsin after the 2011 passage of Act 10, promoted by Governor Scott Walker.)

While the new Proposed Tentative Agreement, dated yesterday, makes no explicit mention of a moratorium, section 17 of the document obliquely refers to a charter school “side letter” that was part of an earlier offer from January of this year. The entirety of the side letter amounts to a single sentence on page 155 of the 156-page earlier offer which reads:

There will be a net zero increase in the number of Board authorized charter schools over the term of this agreement and the total number of students enrolled by the end of school year 2018-2019 will not exceed 101% of the total student enrollment capacity as of school year 2015-2016.

The phrase “Board authorized” refers to the Chicago Board of Education. That’s an important distinction because according to state law, the Illinois Charter School Commission can also authorize charter schools on appeal, if an applicant gets rejected by a district like Chicago. What’s unclear is how the “101%” enrollment provision would be interpreted if the state begins authorizing a large number of new schools through the appeals process. Although the commission has exhibited a willingness to overrule school districts in the past and grant charter appeals, there are currently only eight charter schools statewide authorized by the commission, five of which are in Chicago — a small fraction of the 130 charter campuses currently operating in the city.

Reaction was swift. Andrew Broy, President of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said, “Given this deal, Chicago now has the dubious distinction of being the only American city with a self-imposed cap on the number of charter public schools. For a city with such a proud record of achievement that has led the country nationally on high-quality charter growth as recently as five years ago, this is an embarrassment.”

Nina Rees, President of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said, “By using charter schools as a pawn in negotiations regarding other public schools, Chicago is hurting the thousands students on the city’s charter school wait lists – as well as their families, who want and deserve strong public school options.”

Earlier this month, Chicago charter school supporters rallied to oppose efforts to artificially restrain the supply of schools, captured on video and posted in a Tweet by Chicago Tribune reporter Juan Perez.

The concept of a cap on charter school growth is not new in Chicago. In September of last year, Alderman Roderick Sawyer introduced a resolution to prevent the expansion of charter enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, which the Illinois Network of Charter Schools called “misguided.” The resolution failed after Alderman Will Burns, chairman of the city council’s education committee, left it off the committee’s agenda.

According to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, over 58,000 students attended the city’s charter schools in 2015-16, which represented about 15% of Chicago’s public school students, well up from the 6% enrollment figure eight years ago.

In other potential Chicago teachers strike news, unionized charter school teachers at the Chicago-based UNO Charter School Network have provided their own strike deadline of October 19. If no deal is reached, this will be the first strike in the 25-year history of the national charter school movement. UNO teachers are asking for summer break to be extended to 6 weeks and two days from the current 5 weeks and for their contract to specify a maximum class size of 32-students.

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