If it feels like the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have been wandering around in the wilderness for the past 12 years, it’s because we have. We’ve changed CEOs about six or seven times, and we’ve been watching our bottom line slowly wither up and die. There’s a famous proverb that says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Yes, Lord, I hear you. But can you speak a little louder to the leaders at CPS? Just last Thursday, 42 of 50 aldermen in Chicago signed a resolution calling for a citywide and statewide freeze on new charters. The Chicago Teachers Union has lobbied for this measure, but CPS and, of course, charter school advocates, are not on board. After the district closed 50 schools in the summer of 2013 due to under-enrollment, it was an opportune time for CPS to roll out a short- and long-term strategic plan to map the district, charter and selective school landscape for the city going forward. Though the closures were unpopular, it set the stage for systematic reforms in which the district could cast a new, better vision for public education in Chicago. The teachers union asked for it. Charter school advocates asked for it. Parents asked for it. Even reporters asked for it. Everybody wanted to see the vision. Sure, any plan would have generated controversy, but at least all parties would know where CPS was headed.

Freezing Charters Is Not the Answer

But in the absence of a vision and a never-ending revolving door in CPS leadership, the district returned to its piecemeal, the-sky-is-falling type stopgap measures that has made it infamous for incompetence, inefficiency, and a lack of trustworthiness. Now an overwhelming majority of city aldermen want to freeze charter school expansions in Chicago. They cite low student enrollment and the district’s $480 million budget shortfall for the current school year that could force up to 5,000 teacher layoffs by Thanksgiving. But a statewide moratorium on charters would do little to nothing to ease CPS’s budget woes, which were caused by years of grossly underfunding teacher pensions. In fact, charter schools in Illinois run on 85 percent of a traditional public school’s budget and they must privately fundraise the other 15 percent. (The disparity is as much as 58 percent in Louisiana.) From a public standpoint, charters are cheaper to operate than district schools. Worse, putting a freeze on charters in Illinois would require the state to refuse the $42 million federal grant to expand them, at a time when funding sources are bone dry. CPS is basically bankrupt, so asking LEARN Charter Network and the Noble Network to give up the additional $6.5 million and $8.5 million in new federal money seems absurd. And while some charters are poorly run and under-performing, others are thriving and leading the academic growth gains in the district. According to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools:

A Vision of Quality

This shouldn’t be a charter versus traditional school discussion. Charters don’t get magic bonus points for quality just by virtue of being charters. The fact is, we’ve argued too long about the type of schools and the quantity of schools when the core issue is quality. The district would not have closed 50 schools—even if they were “under-utilized”—had they been pillars of student achievement. And I can name at least five charters that probably belonged on the closure list. Let’s bring equity in resources and funding to all types of schools and make every school subject to the same intensive five-year renewal audit that charters must undergo to stay open. No double standard. No school gets a pass. Why unilaterally stop the momentum of innovation and success of a school just because it’s a charter? We don’t need a moratorium on new charter schools. What we need is a VISION.  
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames’ award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.