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Gates Initiative Generates District-Charter Compact in Chicago

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Charter schools in Chicago would get easier access to facilities and a likely increase in per-pupil funding under a proposed district-charter compact that would also make charters subject to some of the same testing and accountability standards as traditional schools.

The draft agreement between CPS and its charters was handed out at a Tuesday conference for participants in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative called “District-Charter Collaboration Compacts.” Chicago Public Schools and Spring Branch Independent School District, outside of Houston, are joining the 12 districts across the country that already signed on.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at Tuesday’s announcement that he hopes high-performing charter operators from around the country will “look at this as an opportunity to set up shop.” Chicago has historically had trouble bringing in some nationally-known operators because of its relatively low per-pupil funding.

Yet Emanuel added that “just because you’re a charter, that doesn’t mean you get a pass. Creating more schools of excellence is my goal.”

Chicago and the other cities will be eligible to compete for a pot of $20 million in implementation funding that the Gates Foundation will dole out over the next three to five years. The foundation expects about 10 districts to earn grants; two or three could get $4 million to $7 million, the rest $2 million or less.

In addition, the foundation expects to award five program grants of up to $20 million in all, to bolster school districts’ ability to help charter schools find or buy facilities—something that many charters in Chicago have struggled to do. Facilities questions have been a big bone of contention between charters and traditional schools.

Charters, too, have long complained that they receive fewer dollars per pupil than traditional schools (although they typically receive more private funds). The compact would change that, with a commitment to funding both types of schools at the same level.

“We are concerned with creating equity between charter schools and traditional schools, to make sure all students are receiving the education they deserve,” CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said.

Chicago’s draft compact pledges extra help for charter schools that want access to district and other facilities, more transparency in how school facilities are assigned, and a process that is the same for all new school operators.

The compact proposes that CPS prioritize giving district facilities over to charter schools in high-need neighborhoods, while asking charter schools in low-need neighborhoods to find their own buildings. A 2007 Catalyst Chicago analysis found that the district was prioritizing new schools, including charters, for capital improvements.

Those schools that find their own buildings currently receive just $425 per student to cover facilities costs; under the compact, the district could make a one-time increase in fall 2012. Charters could get even more per-pupil in neighborhoods with a high need for good schools.

“The availability and supply of CPS facilities should not limit the number of quality charter openings in any given year,” the compact states. “The mutual goal of CPS and charters is to ensure that charters do not have to divert operating funds for facility capital needs.”

That could be a costly proposition for the district, but so far, CPS communications officials say they don’t know whether it will cost extra.

Michael Milkie, superintendent and CEO of the Noble Street Charter Network, said at the announcement that the compact “creates a climate in terms of funding, in terms of facilities, that has corrected some of the struggles charters have had in the past.”

“I think we’ll really raise everybody’s game,” he said. “Because now we are going to be compared [to other schools] in the most transparent ways. We’re going to have to up our game; traditional schools are going to have to up their game.”

Among other changes outlined in Chicago’s draft compact:

• An identical accountability system for neighborhood and charter schools in the 2012-13 school year. Students would take the same tests, including the EXPLORE, PLAN, ACT and to-be-determined elementary school tests. The district would have the same standards for opening, turning around, and closing both types of schools.

• A working group to make sure charters provide high-quality services for English learners, at-risk students, and students with disabilities.

• A centralized enrollment system that would include charter schools, slated to begin in fall 2013 for high schools and in fall 2016 for elementaries. “I have heard so many times from parents who say, I have to navigate 40 or 50 applications,” schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said on a conference call announcing Chicago’s participation.

• An expedited authorization process for charter managers with a track record of success. The criteria for success are not defined in the compact.

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• A decrease in the red tape that charter operators have to deal with, by “minimizing unnecessary reporting” and streamlining CPS compliance rules. However, details are not yet clear.

• A change that would allow charters to participate in the Chicago Leadership Collaborative principal preparation program, with internships available in both charter and neighborhood schools.

• A “High School Strategy Team” that aims to bring ideas from Noble Charter School Network and the Academy for Urban School Leadership to all the district’s high schools.

Reigniting the Original Vision

Through its initiative, the Gates Foundation is pushing to increase collaboration between traditional schools and charter schools. To some extent, that’s in line with the original vision of charters as laboratories of innovation for ideas that would then be brought into traditional schools.

Anna Hall, chief operating officer for Uncommon Schools in Rochester and Troy, New York, says Rochester’s compact process offered “the opportunity to get everyone around the table.” As a result of the collaboration, Uncommon Schools founder Doug Lemov offered training for Rochester’s teachers on his “Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices.”

“Our goal is always to work as partners with the district, but there often lack formal structures,” she says. “Misperceptions existed on both sides” about what changes charters and non-charters could, or would, be open to.

For instance, Hall says, many charter school operators did not realize neighborhood schools could create flexibility in how they disciplined students or created a school climate.

“We feel like we’ve gained advocates in the district,” Hall says.

Examples From Charter Compacts Elsewhere

• In Spring Branch Independent School District, officials plan to bring the KIPP and YES Prep charter school instruction models to regular schools via “school-within-a-school” programs.

• In Nashville, Tenn., the district has worked with teacher preparation programs to track teacher effectiveness and create an elite “Green Beret” group of teachers for turnaround schools.

• In Hartford, Conn., charter school representatives are working with district officials to redesign middle schools and “create a model that draws on the charters’ success in educating middle school students.” Chicago has a similar plan for high schools.

• New York City, like Chicago, is opening up its principal training programs to charter school leaders. The Charter Center there has also increased charter school efforts to recruit and retain special-needs and Spanish-speaking students.

• Denver Public Schools is expanding the charter networks that are doing well, and closing low-performing charter and traditional schools. It also created a school choice process for students who enter the district mid-year, so they’re not left out of charters.

• New Orleans’ Recovery School District will be closing and replacing the bottom one-fifth of its schools.

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