How Closed by Choice Gets It Wrong

Public charter schools deliver real results for kids in Chicago every day. One out of every ten kids in Chicago attends a public charter school. Chicago’s charter public school students gain an additional two weeks of learning in reading and an additional month of learning in math. And the charter advantage extends to high school and beyond. 70% of charter graduates enroll in college, compared to 50% of district graduates.

That’s why it’s so disheartening to see a politically motivated hit-piece of “research” being circulated that unfairly blames the city’s 130 public charter schools for a litany of unrelated and longstanding problems facing Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Closed by Choice, a recently published report by the Project for Middle Class Renewal – which is not a peer-reviewed academic journal – conveniently piles 100% of the financial blame on the very schools that have driven academic success over the last fifteen years. The report overlooks the real strides charter schools have made in communities where students have long been underserved, in an attempt to tie charter school growth to CPS’ longstanding financial woes – while unfairly blaming charter schools for school closures in Chicago.

Closed by Choice attempts to definitively link public school closures to charter school openings in select neighborhoods through a geographic analysis. But here’s the problem: their research does not use any type of statistical analysis that could isolate the effect of a charter school opening on a nearby public school’s enrollment. The result is a half-baked set of findings, which aren’t supported by any type of substantive research and lack any form of peer review – which is probably why the report wasn’t taken seriously by a single academic journal.

Exhibit A: the report claims that charter schools are responsible for dwindling enrollment… and in the same breath, blames charters for school overcrowding.

Exhibit B: the policy recommendations made in the report are a laundry list of anti-charter proposals being pushed by special interests in Springfield – including putting a moratorium on new charter schools and eliminating the Illinois Charter School Commission. Clearly, the report is meant as to back up a special interest, anti-charter school agenda to take away parents’ right to choose the best public schools for their children.

And while there is no denying that CPS’ finances have been deteriorating, it is a ridiculous leap to blame Chicago’s public charter schools for decades of financial disarray. The two largest drivers of CPS’ fiscal destabilization have nothing to do with public charter schools – a fact that Closed by Choice conveniently ignores. Here are the real drivers of CPS fiscal woes:

    • Underfunded pension obligations. CPS owes the Teachers’ Pension Fund $715 million due to decades of nonpayment. In fact, the situation is so dire, due to a lack of earmarked pension funds, CPS is considering taking out a high-interest loan to cover part of the upcoming $715 million payment
    • Unstable and decreased state funding. The state of Illinois is in the midst of an unprecedented fiscalcrisis. The state has yet to pass a budget, for the second year in a row, which has contributed to the uncertain and declining amount of state aid.

    In short, Closed by Choice shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone hoping to draw conclusions about why CPS is struggling financially – and the authors should think twice about scapegoating families seeking a better public education in their communities.