Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Opinion: Charter Advocates Want It Both Ways On Empty Schools

Advocates argue CPS should allow charters to operate in recently-shuttered schools

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The approval comes amid protests from the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters of public schools. MaryAnn Ahern reports. (Published Wednesday, Jan 22, 2014)

    A debate is raging on the West Side of Chicago over whether a recently shuttered Chicago Public School should be handed over to a private charter school operator who wants to repurpose the building for its own needs.

    Advocates for the idea, including the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, argue that since the school building is already sitting empty, why shouldn't it be put to good use?

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    That’s one way to look at it. Another is this: As private entities using free market business models, should charters be given government handouts simply to make it more financially viable for them to continue?

    The school in question, the now-closed Pope Elementary School at 1852 S. Albany in the Lawndale neighborhood, was one of the 50 schools closed by CPS in 2013.

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    Since then, CPS hasn’t said what it plans to do with the building, although the district is currently engaged in a process of trying to figure out what to do with all the empty buildings it has on its hands as a result of the massive consolidation in 2013.

    What CPS did do, however, was make a promise when it closed the schools that the newly-emptied buildings wouldn't be turned over to charters. It’s a promise at least one neighborhood group, the Lawndale Alliance, wants CPS to keep.

    However, the prospect of an empty school building sitting unused has attracted the attention of Legacy Charter School, which has operated a charter in another neighborhood public school location for the past nine years. Legacy has approached the North Lawndale Community Action Council, a community group created by CPS for feedback on education issues, about taking over the shuttered building that used to house Pope.

    Which makes sense, if you think about it. As private companies, charter schools need to leverage every financial advantage they can in order to make money for their owners. While many charters in Chicago and elsewhere are operated as nonprofits, others have deep ties to hedge funds, real estate investment trusts (REITs) and other private, corporate entities seeking profit as much or more as educational outcomes.

    For its part, Legacy Charters was founded and is run in part by Dentons, a global law firm that specializes in protecting corporate clients from such things as government regulation, taxes, bankruptcy and unfair competition.

    
And, clearly, getting an empty school for free or at a greatly-reduced price would go a long way in helping a charter school achieve its financial goals, whatever they may be. It’s a reality openly acknowledged by Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, who told the Chicago Tribune that blocking charters from taking over empty school buildings is “impractical”:

    Broy said that every year the district is adding eight to 14 charter schools and most of those privately run schools want to move into a CPS building because that's more financially viable for them.

    Opening in a private building costs charter schools about $1,500 per student per year in facility expenses, while charters pay CPS about $600 per student per year, Broy said. Of the 43 buildings available from last year's closings, charter advocates have identified about half that would not require major renovations.

    That's a whole lot of empty schools charters could argue they should have access to. And make no mistake—charters like Legacy are looking to secure empty buildings at greatly-reduced rates in order to make their operations more “viable”. If they weren’t, they would simply pay CPS whatever the going market rate would be for the piece of property in question and be done with it.

    In other words, charters like Legacy are looking for a government handout that just happens to be in the form of an empty school building, not cash.

    Go back to the beginning of the debate over charter schools in Chicago and elsewhere, and you’ll find some very clear arguments advocates made about why charter schools are necessary to better educate our children.

    As part of the “public sector”, these arguments went, public schools have become bloated with bureaucracy and inefficiencies, and only a private sector solution that utilizes free market business models can produce the kinds of educational outcomes students need to succeed.

    What does it say about charters like Legacy that, even with taxpayer subsidies to open their doors in the first place, they can't get by without government giving them a place to do business as well?