BRIGHTON PARK — A community forum organized Tuesday by groups looking to stop the expansion of charter schools was filled with crash-course lectures and calls to civic action.
"There's no reform [with charter schools]. There is political clout and profit," said Byron Sigcho, an academic researcher and vocal critic of the scandal-marred UNO charter school network.
The forum, held Tuesday at Shields Middle School, 2611 W. 48th St., was hosted by several grassroots anti-charter school groups.
The CPS Board of Education has approved 10 new charters for 2014, but all may not open because operators have yet to secure buildings. At its Jan. 22 meeting, the school board is set to vote on 21 new charter campuses, mostly in areas on the city's Northwest and Southwest Sides.
Charter school supporters say that those institutions do a better job educating children, are cheaper to operate and are more flexible to change. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said that charter school growth is an effort to give parents more choices in deciding how their children will be educated.
The proposals from the potential charter operators can be read here.
At Tuesday's standing-room-only forum, Sigcho, a member of the Teachers for Social Justice group that helped host the forum, and three other academics presented the findings of their research, ranging in topics from the proportion of special education students enrolled at charters to the amount of taxpayer cash the quasi-public schools receive.
The forum was translated into Spanish for the largely Hispanic crowd.
Federico Waitoller is a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher and an author who studies racial inequities in special education. According to his research, Chicago's charter schools are enrolling a disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities but are not necessarily ready to accommodate them.
"We can interpret this data in two ways," he said. "One is that charter schools are very, very good about including students with disabilities in general education classrooms."
More likely, he said, charters are simply placing those students in general classrooms because they don't have the right resources, space or specialized teachers to help them.
Stephanie Farmer, a Roosevelt University researcher of urban sociology, political economy and social movements, showed studies using data from Catalyst Chicago comparing enrollment trends in charter schools and public schools and the levels of public funding sent to each.
For example, she said enrollment is expected to rise at magnet, selective enrollment and neighborhood elementary schools, but those schools will get roughly 4 percent less funding in 2014. Charters, meanwhile, are also seeing surges in enrollment but are getting 12 percent more from CPS.
"What we're seeing is an expansion of the charter school budget. Basically the trends we're seeing here are a rollback and cuts that are happening to neighborhood schools, while...charter schools are actually getting more of the tax dollars," she said.
Jean Pierce, a retired Northern Illinois University education professor who serves on the national League of Women Voters "Education and Study Committee," delivered the findings of her study, which compared the city's successful charter schools to its top-performing traditional public counterparts.
"At a time when the state is seriously underfunding public education, there does not appear to be a convincing reason to give preferential treatment to charters," she said.
Activists with the grassroots Raise Your Hand education group encouraged the audience, which included dozens of Shields middle school students, to call CPS Board president David Vitale, Emanuel and their aldermen to voice their opposition to charters before the Jan. 22 vote.