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As Mark Twain observed, Chicago is constantly remaking itself, and its schools are no exception. Stung by then-U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett's 1987 declaration that it had the worst schools in America, the Windy City has been striving ever since to erase that blot on its reputation. Reform began with a community-focused school decentralization plan in the 1980s followed by the mayoral takeover of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in the 1990s. Then, when Illinois passed a law in 1996 allowing school districts to create public charter schools that enjoy freedom from regulation in exchange for heightened accountability, Chicago leaped at the opportunity.
Shortly after his takeover of CPS in 1995, Democratic Mayor Richard Daley appointed Paul Vallas as school superintendent. Together, they sought ways to create new, high-quality schools that would be free from bureaucratic constraints, but still accountable for high results.
The first Chicago charter school opened in 1997. Since then, CPS has opened as many charters as the original 1996 law allows. It has even tested the limits of the law, allowing some high-performing charters to open multiple campuses. With eight years of charter experience now under its belt, CPS has earned a well-deserved reputation for having one of the country's most thoughtful approaches to authorizing this new breed of independent public schools.
Chicago's public school system has pursued a slow-growth, high-quality strategy toward its charters. It has sought homegrown proposals to run the schools and nurtured their development in partnership with local businesses and nonprofit groups.
The charter oversight by CPS succeeds because it is:
- Proactive: Unlike most other Illinois school districts, CPS is not a passive charter authorizer. Instead of waiting for groups to propose new schools, CPS actively seeks out potential operators and clearly describes its vision of a successful school through its request for proposal (RFP) process.
- Selective: Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the charter applications CPS reviews have been denied.
- Stringent: The CPS annual audit process closely monitors schools' financial management and compliance with legal regulations.
- Transparent: The RFPs and accountability contracts for CPS include extensive guidelines and evaluation criteria. These details help charter applicants understand the school district's expectations and let school operators know what they must do to have their charters renewed.
- Protective: Often, CPS shields charter schools from central office bureaucrats looking to extend their reach.
Chicago's charters have thrived thanks to support from the mayor and other political heavyweights. Community organizations, such as the University of Chicago and the Children's Choir, have also stepped up and opened charter schools to advance their missions.
As a result, Chicago charter schools are demonstrating impressive results. The most noteworthy outcomes are:
Even a cautious analysis of students' test scores shows that:
- strong graduation rates, in all but one school;
- wild popularity among families, with waiting lists of as much as 10 times the number of seats available;
- higher attendance rates, in all but one charter school, compared to the schools charter students would otherwise have attended; and
- school models that are being replicated in other school districts.
- since 2001, seven of 10 Chicago charter elementary schools improved faster than CPS as a whole;
- all Chicago charter high schools outperformed the average scores of public schools that charter students would have otherwise attended; and
- two studies by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby show impressive results in one of Chicago's multicampus charter schools, as well as among charter schools all across Illinois.
Chicago's charter community is now in full stride, with 27 campuses demonstrating they can improve student performance and provide desirable public school options for Chicago families. Still, only 3.6 percent of all Chicago students attend charters, leaving the vast majority in subpar schools.
Mayor Daley and Chicago's current schools superintendent, Arne Duncan, recently announced a plan backed by the Chicago Civic Committee and other foundations to take the city's charter school experiment to scale. Their Renaissance 2010 initiative would replace as many as 70 low-performing traditional public schools with 100 new charter and contract schools, as well as more autonomous district-run schools.
The plan faces significant hurdles, however, including the recent departure of key charter allies, resistance within the CPS bureaucracy, and lingering community opposition. The outcome will depend on whether the entire Chicago community -- educators, city officials, foundations, and businesses -- can come together to build grassroots support, reconstruct the central office, fund new schools fairly, and incubate start-up expertise and leadership.
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Robin J. Lake is the executive director of the National Charter School Research Project. Lydia Rainey is a research associate at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education.