Chicago union chief shows some panic over charters

An op-ed that appeared in today’s Chicago Sun-Times from Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis contained a hint of panic. Not on the resolution of the teachers strike, now in its fifth day, but on Rahm Emanuel’s rumored plan to close 80 to 120 low-performing and poorly attended schools.

Lewis took aim at the city’s charter schools, and it’s not surprising. The waiting list for high-demand charters in the city has reached 19,000 names, and the mayor and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, want more charters to serve more students as they contemplate the closure of dozens of schools. The strike has accomplished two things: 1.) It has given Emanuel more political cover to enhance the charter sector, and 2.) it has given the charter movement more soldiers.

This week alone, the number of phone calls to Chicago charters from interested parents has tripled from the normal rate, said Andrew Broy, the president if the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. While most the city’s 119 charter schools can’t accommodate new families, Broy said his network is adding many of the callers to its list of active supporters and he’s touting that 5,000 parents may show up to the group’s own rally on October 3.

Lewis relies on an old canard to draw public support for her cause: The mayor and his “hedge-fund allies” want to privatize public schools. But then she turns to the absurd and writes, “As a parent, do you really want your child wearing a three-piece polyester suit every day to school and pay a fine every time your child’s tie isn’t on straight?” This last refers to the documented practice of fining students for misbehavior at the Noble Network of Charter Schools, where four demerits in two weeks will cost you detention and $5.

Noble presently has thousands of students on its waiting list. So, yes, parents are ready to pay that price.

And more may be ready to actively campaign for a sector of public education that has doubled by enrollment in the last five years. There are now 52,000 charter school students in Chicago, which represents 13 percent of all public school enrollment in the Windy City. It’s no wonder that Lewis is fighting hard to win laid off teachers in the district rehiring privileges (a thorny topic at the negotiating table). Charters have steadily taken an increasing percentage of the public school market share in the city, and the strike may only heighten that trend. And it won’t be just the mayor fighting for these changes.

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