DOWNTOWN — Chicago Public Schools moved to open seven new charter schools over the next two years, but the Board of Education also denied 11 other proposals as charter proponents and opponents clashed at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday.
The board vote came after CPS Chief Innovation and Incubation Officer Jack Elsey advised the board to accept seven proposals, but five of which would have to meet set conditions.
The two he supported outright were a Great Lakes Academy proposal in South Shore and the Noble Street ITW campus in Belmont Cragin. He also set conditions for tentative approval of another Noble campus, two Concept Schools, a Chicago Education Partnership school on the West Side and an Intrinsic school for fall 2015.
The Noble ITW and Intrinsic proposals passed unanimously, but board member Carlos Azcoitia opposed the others, joined by Andrea Zopp on the other Noble proposal, modeled after New England's Philips Exeter Academy.
"This is a complex situation," said President David Vitale. "This whole effort is about improving the overall quality of our schools and the education of our children, and as you can tell by the discussion today, we have a lot of challenging balancing to do between different views of how to go about executing that goal."
"I want to make sure that, whatever charters are voted upon, it does relieve overcrowding because this was the intent of this board," Azcoitia said.
"For the schools where we have overcrowding, I believe high-quality charter options to ease those issues are appropriate and we should support that," Zopp said. "For those schools that are not in those areas, it's been a real struggle for me."
Elsey advised the board to deny a total of 11 proposed schools from the Curtis Sharif Stem Academy, Asian Human Services Passages, Connected Futures Academy and Be the Change, and the board voted to reject those proposals.
The debate over charters raged before and during the Board of Education meeting, with several aldermen lining up on opposite sides of the issue.
"I'm proud to say that charters exist for reason. They're here to give me a choice that I don't have within my neighborhood," said Lucy Reese of Charter Parents United. "There are so many things in our communities where it's not safe for our children, and I need a safe environment."
Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, argued that all Chicagoans were entitled to a choice of high-quality schools. He cited the proven track record of the Noble and Intrinsic charters.
"The rhetoric of choice is being used to set up a false narrative," said Ald. John Arena (45th). "We need our neighborhood schools, because that's the choice that parents want to make — to stay in their neighborhoods, to stay in their communities, and have their kids educated down the street, not across the city."
Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) snorted at Elsey's rationale to open the Noble ITW high school in Belmont Cragin because Taft High School is well above capacity.
"We're building a high school six and a half miles away from a crowded high school," he said, adding that there are four high schools within a mile and a half of the proposed Noble site at 5321 W. Grand Ave., including Prosser Career Academy across the street.
Sposato said there was "strong community opposition" to the new Noble high school, and he called the Neighborhood Advisory Council that studied the proposal "a farce" as he said it was headed by a biased person in favor of charters.
Yet Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) spoke passionately in defense of charters, especially Noble ITW and Chicago Education Partnership, both of which she supported in writing in their proposals.
"I'm supporting charter schools," she said. "I know what I know, and I know that we need the charter schools there."
Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Scott Waguespack (32nd) asked the board to delay a vote on charters for a year, with Fioretti calling it "disingenuous and irresponsible" in the wake of last year's school closings, while Waguespack said it "defies common sense and logic."
Yet Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) sided with Mitts and said it was not for other aldermen to tell them what's best for their constituents.
The Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Church, said he opposed last year's school closings, but spoke in support of Chicago Education Partnership in Austin.
"I support neighborhood schools and always have, but this specific proposal is needed on the West Side," Hatch said. "What we really lack are high-quality elementary-school options, and this school would fit a specific need. This is the right time, the right decision and the right place for this school."
Jennie Biggs, of Raise Your Hand and the Bridgeport Alliance, presented a data study showing that 47 percent of Chicago's charter schools are underenrolled, a figure later cited by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in her remarks to the board.
"Don't turn a tragedy into a farce," said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. "Closing 50 public schools was a tragedy.
"It would be a farce to then turn around to open 31 charter schools," he added, pointing to how the board had already approved nine last year to open this fall.
"This year, CPS took millions of dollars from schools," said Dalia Mena, a Steinmetz High School student with Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools. "We don't want to see that money going to charters."
Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia (D-Chicago) chimed in, attacking the "rapid proliferation" of charters and adding, "Neighborhood schools are hurting."
Zopp raised concerns over approving new charters less than a year after closing 50 public schools. She wondered aloud about putting new schools "where we have no need for the seats."
Elsey strongly suggested that the five charter proposals receiving tentative approval were to ward off possible appeals to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, which last year approved two schools rejected by CPS, thus placing them under CPS' financial jurisdiction, but with little or no oversight. Elsey added it was "highly unlikely" the nine charters already set for opening this fall would all get final board approval to open.
Zopp demanded that the five contingent approvals be returned to the board for a final go-ahead, and that was granted.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett was not at the meeting because she was "dealing with a personal family health issue," Vitale said.
Lewis said she would work with the board to lobby against the State Charter School Commission, to which Vitale replied, "Let's join hands." It was the only agreement across the contentious issue of charters all day long.