The need for charter schools: The Tribune overstates the case



Robin DAverso, a charter school teacher, carries her daughter Zahraa Raven, 4, during a rally in opposition to the plan to close public schools in Chicago.
  • Andrew A. Nelles/Sun-Times Media
  • Robin D'Averso, a charter school teacher, carries her daughter Zahraa Raven, 4, during a rally in opposition to the plan to close public schools in Chicago.
A statistic that isn't precise, that probably isn't even a ballpark figure, but that someone thinks suggests the scope of a problem, may have a place in journalism. But that place isn't on the front page of the Chicago Tribune supporting two days of editorials.

The problem is the state of public education in Chicago. The number is 19,000—which is supposedly the size of the waiting list to get into Chicago's charter schools. WBEZ has spent days examining this number and reports Tuesday that it "significantly overstates demand." I've looked at it too and applied what I'd like to think is common sense to the Tribune's claim. WBEZ is right.

The editorials ran on Sunday and Monday of last week. The Sunday editorial began at the top of page one under the headline "Ready for education reform."

"Last year," said the Tribune, "8,781 students dropped out of Chicago public high schools. In elementary schools, 51,106 children couldn't meet state reading standards. And 19,000 kids yearn to escape their current public schools for seats in charter schools..." The editorial continued for a full page inside.

The Monday Tribune repeated the number. Under the front-page headline "Unchain the charters," the paper's editorial voice spoke: "Suppose your child was one of the 19,000 Chicago students trapped on a waiting list for admission to a charter school. How infuriated would you be watching that child head to a dead-end classroom because he or she can't enroll at a charter that would deliver a stronger education...?"

The full editorial ran inside. It riffed on the number. "Here's a haunting statistic that we cannot repeat too often," said the Tribune: "of all the school districts in the U.S., Chicago Public Schools has one of the longest waiting lists for admission to a charter school. There are 19,000 students on the list this year. That number has been rising since 2008, when 13,500 Chicago students languished on the wait list.

"Next year, there will be some 23,000 children waiting, Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, tells us.... 19,000 students this year, 23,000 next year. And probably more in years to come. These children can't wait."

But in all likelihood, thousands of these children who can't wait don't exist.

The 19,000 figure originated with a biennial report of the Illinois State Board of Education, and it's based on the 2010-11 school year. Stacy McAulife, COO of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, explained to me that the figure was teased out of the charters' enrollment data: the size of the waiting list at each charter school—or network of charter schools, if the kids applied to the network—was calculated by subtracting from the number of kids who applied the number who were enrolled. The rest of those kids went on the school's waiting list—unless their parents told the school to forget about them. Add up the waiting list at every Chicago charter school, and the number came to about 19,000. McAulife says it's possible the actual number today is even higher, because it seems to increase in size every year.

But on the other hand . . .

The other hand, in this case, is a great big mangy paw so enormous it's hard to imagine how the Tribune could have overlooked it. (On Monday I asked Bruce Dold, who runs the Tribune editorial page, to comment on the 19,000 number. Dold, who was out of town when the editorials ran, said he was looking into them. As of Monday night he hadn't gotten back to me.)

Parents looking for a better education for their kids don't apply to one school. They apply to a bunch of them. McAulife acknowledges that the 19,000 figure doesn't allow for this redundancy. It doesn't account for the kid who is on the waiting list at half a dozen schools. It doesn't account for the kid who was accepted at one of those schools but was never removed from the waiting lists of the others. It doesn't account for the kid who's now attending a magnet school, because his parents applied to a bunch of those too, and is now getting a perfectly decent education from the Chicago Public Schools even though the Tribune apparently thinks he's still yearning for a berth at a charter.

And so the Illinois Network of Charter Schools cites the 19,000 figure but doesn't really stand by it. Although McAuliffe in our conversations threw out the notion that 19,000 might even understate present reality, she told me her seat-of-the-pants estimate of the actual waiting list is that it's two-thirds to three-quarters the size the Tribune editorials were asserting.

My seat-of-the-pants assessment of that estimate is that it's still way too high.

For instance, if all those kids who "yearn" for seats in charter schools are apples, Broy and the Tribune have tossed in a lot of oranges.

In its long report Tuesday morning on waiting lists, WBEZ points out that the 19,000 includes kids on the waiting lists of the 22 schools that compose the Youth Connection Charter School. Except that they're not kids: Youth Connection is an alliance of 22 alternative schools that enroll high school dropouts up to 21 years of age. Executive director Sheila Venson says the schools have seats for about 4,000 students and enroll new students twice a year, and she says 70 percent of the applicants are eventually admitted. Which means that a 20-year-old dropout who applies goes on a waiting list until he gets in. These alternative schools have been around for decades, though they weren't consolidated into a charter until 1997. Apparently Chicago needs more of them. But they have little in common with the newly created charters that in the Tribune's view would be the salvation of second-graders languishing in a lousy public school. Yet WBEZ calculates that Youth Connection contributes some 3,000 applicants a year to the Tribune's pool of 19,000 yearning children.

What's more, says Tuesday's WBEZ report by education reporter Becky Vevea, "there are between 3,000 and 5,000 available seats in charter schools right now, according to charter advocates." So perhaps from that 19,000 we should subtract the the spaces at charters that children apparently aren't yearning to get into.

To get a handle on redundancy, WBEZ examined elite CPS schools. (CPS is miles ahead of the charters in data collection.) WBEZ didn't discover some redundancy. It discovered overwhelming redundancy.

Vevea reports:

Data provided by CPS shows that 13,105 children applied for 1,865 spots in selective enrollment programs this year. Because parents apply to multiple schools, they filed a total of 51,150 applications.

The same data is collected for magnet programs. This year, 13,725 students applied for 3,697 spots in magnet schools; 47,881 total applications were filed. CPS officials said there may be overlap between the two pools of applicants.

If we ignore the redundancy CPS can show exists, then we have 51,150 applications for 1,865 spots in selective enrollment programs and 47,881 applications for 3,697 spots in magnet schools. Voila!—a waiting list of over 93,000 students. How's that for a "haunting statistic"? It puts the charter schools' waiting list to shame.

But there's overlap galore—in the public schools, in the charter schools, and surely between the CPS schools and the charters. Parents looking for good schools for their children don't put all their eggs in one basket.

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