CHICAGO — Some of the city's top charter schools are ringing up fines for disciplinary infractions even as they're racking up large increases in public funding.
Marsha Godard, a parent at Chicago Bulls College Prep, says she has paid close to $2,000 in fines and fees to keep her son in class at the West Side school.
"Education is free," Godard, a member of the Action Now community group, said at a Board of Education meeting last month. "They're only in it for the money."
Opened three years ago and about to graduate its first senior class in the spring, Chicago Bulls College Prep is actually a member of the nonprofit Noble Network of Charter Schools, which operates a dozen schools serving 7,900 students across the city.
The Noble schools have said their disciplinary policies contribute to 90 percent of their students going on to college. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has praised the schools, saying they have the "secret sauce" to academic achievement.
"We do charge a fee when students get a detention," said Angela Montagna, spokeswoman for Noble. "It's a $5 fee, a disciplinary fee, and that goes to offset the cost of administering the discipline."
Godard said her son, Tavonta Gray, 16, had been suspended 15 times. Held back as a freshman last year, he was required to take a summer behavioral session in order to return this year — at a cost of $1,400. Godard estimated he has also rung up about $300 in fines this year along with additional ones last year.
"I'm trying to look for another school for next year," she said. "That school's not working for him."
And her son is not alone, she insisted. Dropping him off for detention one recent Friday, she estimated she saw hundreds of kids in line.
"Each child represents money," Godard said. "I was just floored when I saw that."
Noble charters have received steep funding increases from the Chicago Public Schools. According to the CPS 2013 budget, Chicago Bulls College Prep will receive $9 million next year, up more than 30 percent from $6.9 million this year. Montagna said that's based on a per-student formula and reflects higher enrollment.
According to the most recent government nonprofit filings, Noble schools took in $52.6 million in government grants in 2011, the lion's share from CPS. CPS budgeted Noble schools for $62.2 million this year, and $69.9 million next year.
Ten of the 12 Noble schools received funding increases in the 2013 CPS budget, a rate far higher than for other schools, many of which suffered cuts. Again, Montagna said that was based on their success in recruiting students and their fixed per-student allocation.
Godard said her son's offenses have included having shoes untied, buttons unbuttoned on his polo shirt and failing to keep eyes focused on the teacher — all at three demerits apiece.
"Enforcement of these policies will drive me crazy and bankrupt," she added.
Noble claims that 89 percent of its students are low-income, which makes the fines additionally painful, but Montagna insisted the fines produce results.
"It engages parents," she said. "When it's in their pocketbook, they're much more involved.
"It changes behavior," Montagna added. "So what we see over a student's four years is that the vast majority of detentions ... about 80 percent of all detentions are given to freshmen, and then it goes down after that, where seniors are getting virtually none."