There seems to be some confusion about our position on school choice. Last week we had an opinion piece in Catalyst about the role of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) in Chicago education reform and Catalyst then invited the Director of DFER to respond to our piece. She responded that “my hope is that Ms. Katten wouldn’t discount non-neighborhood school parents and claim that they aren’t real.”Thisresponse reflects an unawareness about RYH and its membership.
RYH is made up of parents who send their kids to all kinds of CPS schools. It would be impossible to have a large advocacy group of parents in CPS who did not utilize school choice. We understand school choice and see the decisions parents make on where to send their child as personal and not subject to judgment. RYH also believes it is possible to respect individual choices while questioning how the system is working as a whole.
RYH believes that one of the choices parents should have is a strong, well-resourced neighborhood school. We have seen that for some neighborhoods, “choice” is a misnomer. There are disparities in what choice means around the city. There is a heavy concentration of magnets on the north/central side and very few on the west side. We have met many parents on the south and west sides who do not have choice –they have charters or turnarounds that have been put in to replace neighborhood schools. One mom said recently the closest neighborhood elementary is 22 blocks away and she has chosen to home school. Even in parts of the city with a higher proportion of magnets and other options, can we say that CPS is offering choice to parents, or is the more accurate term “chance”? What percentage of children get into the school of their choice? Is the answer to create more choices or to properly fund all schools, including neighborhood schools, which have been receiving less funds than magnet/gifted/SE counterparts for years? We think these are good questions to ask and discuss.
Regarding charters, we are not against them as a whole. We are against a massive expansion of charter schools for political reasons when they are not based on sound educational policy. The charter school network that has expanded the fastest recently is the one that is operated by someone who was the Mayor’s campaign director for his election, a network with very mixed results in student outcomes.
We are against closing neighborhood schools and opening charters without parent and community input. We are against the way decisions are made in a vacuum in this district and here are a couple examples of this approach. When two schools, Casals and Piccolo, were slated to close last year, parents voted in overwhelming numbers to keep the schools open. These votes fell upon deaf ears at CPS. As a last resort, Casals parents even tried to occupy the school. At the end of the year their ISAT scores were released and the schools' scores had increased by 9%. Despite these gains, when the school year started, they were handed over to AUSL, a turnaround vendor. We believe in community engagement around these decisions and a system that collaborates with all its stakeholders.
We are also concerned about the lack of transparency afforded to charters. Charter funding was increased at CPS this year by $76 million. We believe charters should have to report on things such as their retention rates, fines imposed upon students and the number of IEPs served. When we looked at IEPs served on the ISBE website, we found that only two charter elementary schools (Namaste and Hope) have IEP rates at the CPS average. The majority are in the single digits. All students deserve choice.
As these discussions unfold, RYH will continue working on pro-active campaigns for positive change. This year, we are working on the elected school board campaign and embarking on a two-year funding campaign to get a graduated income tax on the ballot state-wide in 2014. We don’t think we have enough revenue in IL to give every child the education they deserve. We will host town-hall forums on "The Culture of Standardized Testing at CPS," with the first one being in late November. We will also continue to bring attention to issues such as the need for reduced class size and other quality improvements to the school day.
We have a lot of work to do. We hope you’ll join us this year.
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