Charter school shutdowns loom under planned $700 million budget cuts

INCS rally July 22

Photo courtesy Illinois Network of Charter Schools

Students and parents asked CPS to release money due to charters at a July 2015 rally. More than two dozen charters could close under this year's potential budget cuts.

Two dozen or more charter schools would likely have to close their doors this summer if Chicago Public Schools officials go through with plans to cut $700 million from schools’ budgets.

The cuts could affect up to 15,000 students.

“The scope of the cuts they’re talking about — 20 to 25 percent, in that range — would really be a death blow to a number of schools, no doubt about that,” says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “We’ll see dozens of charters schools not be able to open in the fall.”

The prospective cuts could also lead some charter operators to reconsider opening new campuses, and CPS has given operators until July to submit proposals for opening new schools in the fall because of the budget crisis.

Closing charter schools would cause upheaval on several fronts: for families who would have to find new schools for their children, for district-run schools that would potentially have to take in thousands of students, and for larger charter networks that might also take in students because they are better positioned to absorb the cuts.

Andrew Broy, Illinois Network of Charter Schools

Andrew Broy

Broy was reluctant to name any of the schools most at risk, worried the public attention could hurt their ability to attract and keep students, teachers and outside funders. But he estimates the potential closures would impact 15,000 students.

Last week CPS officials began preparing school leaders for massive budget cuts in case the district doesn’t get hoped-for aid from Springfield to close a $1 billion deficit. CPS is telling district-run schools to prepare to further share workers in some positions, such as counselors and social workers. Assistant principals may also be on the chopping block.

One possibility that has not been publicly suggested is closing district-run schools. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said last summer he would honor a five-year moratorium on school closures that’s set to expire in fall 2018. (Despite his promise, earlier this year CPS formally closed two schools that had already lost all of their students.)

If not closure, then bigger classes and teacher layoffs

Charter schools are not protected by the moratorium. And even those charter schools that can survive major cuts would likely have to increase class sizes, lay off teachers and eliminate the programs “that make charters unique,” Broy says.

“There’s this notion out there that, somehow, charter schools can go to the philanthropic community and get support,” he says. “That’s just not true.”

Several charter school leaders told Catalyst the cuts would be devastating. Newer charters that are still adding grades and single-campus charters are the most vulnerable because they have smaller financial reserves and no networks to share expenses.

About two dozen of the district’s 130 or so charter schools are single-site schools, and have a total of 10,000 students this year–about one of every six charter students. Altogether, charter schools enroll about 15 percent of all CPS students.

One small school, Moving Everest Charter School in Austin, has two grades and is still adding grades. Executive Director Michael Rogers says families “read the newspapers and hear the stories as well, so part of our responsibility in the midst of all that is to assure them we’ll still run a great school and have quality teachers.”

Moving Everest Charter School

On the window of Moving Everest Charter School in Austin, a sign seeks new students for the fall.

Rogers says he’s looking for ways to trim costs, including asking teachers to fill in for lunch duty and recess. He’s also planning to ask private funders for additional help.

Katherine Myers, founder and executive director at the Great Lakes Academy Charter School, called the proposed cuts “so drastic it is difficult to even quantify at this moment.” About 200 students in kindergarten through second grade are enrolled at the South Chicago school, which is slated to expand through eighth grade.

Though private funding will mitigate some of the impact, “there is no way that a small school such as ours can lose funding on this large a magnitude without making some tough choices,” Myers said in an email.

At the 15-campus Chicago International Charter Schools network, which enrolls more than 8,000 students, interim Executive Director Mike Bower said in an email that the network is “looking at every possible scenario right now on how to manage the cuts if they come. “

Delay in charter proposals

CPS will still consider proposals to open more than a dozen new charter schools, saying the district is must go through the process each year under state law. Proposals were supposed to be made public on Friday. But now CPS says it will give potential operators until July to revise their proposals in light of the estimated cuts. It’s unclear whether some operators will withdraw their proposals, given the new budget uncertainty.

Among the organizations seeking to open new schools: the Noble Network of Charter Schools, the largest charter operator in the city. Noble already has permission to add a 17th campus on the Southwest Side this fall and had asked to open two more in the coming years.

But now, says Noble spokesman Cody Rogers, the network does not expect to open new campuses in the 2017-18 school year. “Instead, [we] implore our political leaders to secure a financial future that allows all high-performing public schools to flourish,” Rogers says. “We are committed to meeting the demand for a Noble education…as we believe that Noble can be an important part of improving outcomes for students and neighborhoods.”

Though Noble’s finances are in good enough shape to weather the current crisis, Rogers says any further cuts “will certainly impact us, so our goal, as always, is to mitigate the effects on our classrooms.”

Lobbying the state for funding reform

Meanwhile, INCS is working with member schools on a series of proposals to both CPS and the state to increase funding for schools and find savings within the district.

At the state level, INCS supports an education spending reform bill from Sen. Andy Manar that would increase funding to CPS and other high-poverty districts, which has passed the Senate but has not been voted on in the House. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration opposes the bill.

Broy declined to go into detail about some of the proposals for CPS, but said they would include recommendations related to “how CPS distributes funds” and “right-sizing policy.”

“We’ve got to get past the one-year Band-Aid fixes toward something that is more substantive,” he says.

Brian Harris, president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, the union of charter school teachers, said it was ironic that many of the city’s leading charter proponents “are political allies of the people causing this mess. They go out and support an austerity agenda, and now they reap what they sow,” he said, pointing out that Chicago International founder Beth Purvis is now Rauner’s secretary of education.

Harris called on charter advocates to support a progressive income tax or other new revenue sources for Chicago schools. “All I’ve heard from them is, ‘Take more money from the [traditional] public schools and give it to us,’ ” he said. “They’re interested in fighting over scraps.”