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The Case for Charter Schools and Why Waukegan Didn't Buy It

Mayor Daley loves them, but charters are still a hard sell outside the city.



The first day of school was two months away and already the new principal looked like a bust. After a national search, in April 2006 the Waukegan school board had picked Edward Guerra to head up Waukegan High School. Guerra had been the longtime principal at Chicago’s Farragut High School, where he was credited with reducing violence and absenteeism. But in June 2006 the Chicago Tribune revealed that Guerra was the target of a grade-fixing investigation involving star athletes at Farragut.

A group of Waukegan parents organized a town hall meeting so residents could confront Guerra. He shrugged off the allegations, and he fielded other questions with been-there, can-do aplomb. Yes, I will make Waukegan High School safe, just as I made Farragut among the safest public schools in Chicago, he said. No, I won’t practice zero tolerance—I’ll practice “subzero” tolerance. Yes, I do plan to install metal detectors and X-ray machines, conduct random locker searches, and have canine units patrol the halls. Yes, I will put gang members and drug pushers on notice. Yes, I will promote college attendance and raise academic expectations. No, I won’t dismantle the band and college studies programs. No, it’s not acceptable that some teachers and administrators think Waukegan kids aren’t cut out for college.

Yes, I will celebrate Mexican Independence Day and Martin Luther King Day, he went on. No, I won’t favor Latino kids or black kids or white kids or any race of kids. Yes, I will help undocumented students get scholarships. No, I won’t forget that plenty of legal citizens don’t have money for college either. Yes, I will get rid of bad teachers. No, I won’t be deterred by union rules that make it nearly impossible to fire them.

Guerra resigned less than a year later. The terms of his departure were never made public, and the leadership vacuum lasted until the start of the current school year, when the school board appointed Steve Hamlin the school’s sixth principal in five years. Sometime between Guerra’s resignation and Hamlin’s appointment a coalition of community leaders became convinced that the best way to help Waukegan High School students was to send them somewhere else. The coalition resolved to start a charter school.

At the start of Guerra’s year at Waukegan, in the fall of 2006, Lake County United, a group composed of 37 area churches, synagogues, mosques, unions, and social service agencies, began a series of small-group meetings to identify its members’ concerns, expecting them to focus on crime or illegal immigration. But the primary concern of its members turned out to be the quality of education at the high school. No other issue came close.

Its mandate clear, the organization formed a committee of about two dozen parents, clergy, parents, and students and hired a professor of public policy at DePaul University to gather data. What they learned dismayed even those who were most familiar with the school.

Hugging Lake Michigan in the northeast corner of Illinois, Waukegan is a city of about 90,000. Some 4,200 students attend Waukegan High School, and in 2007, according to the dossier compiled by Lake County United, just one in four of them met state math and reading standards—fewer than had met standards the year before, or the year before that. Violence erupted on either the school’s freshman or main campus on at least half the school days. The average attendance rate was about 60 percent, and the chronic truancy rate was the highest in the state. According to a Gates Foundation study, a Waukegan ninth grader had only a 50-50 shot at graduating in four years. Fewer than 10 percent of the students were enrolled in classes designed to prepare them for college. A single college guidance counselor served all the students. Nobody could say with any degree of certainty how many students ultimately found their way to a college classroom because the school didn’t track that kind of information.

The vast majority of Waukegan High School students fall into social categories that educators say signal a greater statistical risk of academic failure. The student body is 66 percent Latino and 21 percent black (the balance is 10 percent white and 2 percent Asian), according to state report-card data. Nine percent of the students don’t know English well enough to succeed in a mainstream classroom. Over a third of the students come from low-income households.

But Lake County United refused to believe that demographics were destiny. They began a search for a public school—somewhere, anywhere—that was succeeding with kids who looked like Waukegan kids.

They didn’t have to look far: In Chicago, Lake County United members found a number of open-enrollment public schools where large concentrations of poor and minority students attended classes regularly, challenged themselves academically, graduated on time, and went to college.

“We saw kids who liked being in school,” says Melissa Earley, the pastor of Living Faith United Methodist Church in Waukegan. “Kids who said before high school they hadn’t thought about going to college. Kids with previously low GPAs who were going to community colleges but also big-name colleges.”

These schools were charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools that are run privately. They operate by their own rules and in Illinois are exempt from most of the mandates of the state school code. Local school boards or the Illinois Board of Education grant charters to nonprofit groups for a period of five years.

Like magnet, private, and other schools attended by choice, charter schools offer alternatives to the neighborhood public school. Unlike the others, however, they cannot select students based on aptitude or achievement. If applications exceed the number of slots, Illinois law requires them to use a lottery or other random process, with preference given only to siblings of current students.

Proponents say charter schools foster healthy competition for students and tax dollars and give parents choices. They say the lack of red tape can make charters more nimble and innovative than regular public schools. And they see no problem with public money following students to whichever public school they choose—whether it’s run by the district or not. Opponents counter that charter schools spread already insufficient tax dollars even thinner and skim off a disproportionate share of the most capable, most motivated students; they siphon money from “real” public schools, which have fixed costs that don’t decrease when charters assume responsibility for educating a relative handful of students.

Lake County United expected opposition and found it, some of it within its own ranks. They might have expected it to come from the local NAACP chapter. Many chapters across the country have opposed charter schools on grounds that they increase racial segregation and undermine traditional public schools—as recently as 2006, former President Bush was booed at the NAACP convention for voicing support for charters. But the Lake County chapter, which belongs to the coalition, championed the charter proposal. Its members hosted public informational sessions and wrote letters to the Waukegan School Board.

Marian McElroy, president of the chapter, told the board in a September letter: “My parents’ peers, many with limited education, were able to get work in area factories that allowed them to purchase homes and take care of their families. Those jobs are long gone, and now a high school diploma is not good enough. There are far too many young adults in our community who are unemployed or working in low wage jobs. Our community is suffering . . .

“I support charter schools because I believe our young people need all of the options that we can provide. I have worked with Lake County United on the education team and I have visited a number of charter schools in the Chicago area. I feel strongly that Waukegan needs a charter school.”

The Lake County Federation of Teachers took the opposite view. Teachers’ unions tend to be among the most outspoken critics of charter schools, in large part because few have collective bargaining agreements. Some Waukegan teachers felt betrayed by the coalition. “We were one of the early members of Lake County United and one of the bigger members,” says Mike McGue, president of the Lake County Federation of Teachers. “We worked hand-in-hand with them on a number of issues, including trying to accomplish school funding reform. We represent three bargaining units in Waukegan, and they were just livid with the idea these guys were going to shove this down the throat of the school board and administrators.

“Basically, the reason we fell out of grace with this is we think schools should be publicly funded and publicly run, and school boards should be elected and shouldn’t be corporate run,” McGue continues. “I was cautioning leadership that there were a lot of things we could help them with, a lot of proactive things we could do under the umbrella of the local school board. If the issue was to have a separate building or kids who work in different learning models or use different learning strategies, we’re open to that. . . . We were happy to help put together a good school model, but they wanted an adversarial relationship where you wrest away power.”

“The divide,” says Lake County United organizer Tom Lenz, “was really between incremental change, working within the existing school structure, versus systemic change, which would involve totally reconstituting the school’s leadership, culture, expectations, and curriculum. We thought the bigger impact lay in more ambitious thinking.”

In June 2007 2008, over the objections of the union, the governing board of Lake County United approved a resolution to try to bring a charter school to Waukegan. It would be called Waukegan College Prep High School, and it would be run by Chicago International Charter School, a nonprofit organization that already oversaw nine charter elementary schools and three charter high schools in Chicago. Chicago International was chosen for its track record of sending poor and minority students to college and its belief that it could begin offering classes in the fall of 2009.

Students at Chicago International’s schools are 69 percent black and 24 percent Latino. About 70 percent qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, compared with about half of Waukegan students. Yet when Lake County United made the comparison, the average ACT score at Chicago International was 19.7, at Waukegan 16.9. Chicago International reports 82 percent of last year’s graduating seniors went on to college, and that over the past decade the number’s 85 percent.

The plan presented to the Waukegan School Board was for Waukegan College Prep to open its doors this fall in rented classroom space on the second floor of Waukegan’s Shiloh Baptist Church. The first student body would consist of 150 ninth graders, and each year the school would add another class of 150 students until it contained all four grades. There would be no admission criteria, and a lottery would be used if demand exceeded capacity. The Waukegan school district would give Chicago International roughly the amount of money it would have spent if the kids had remained at Waukegan High—about $7,700 a head, according to the school district. Chicago International would bear the cost of building or buying a permanent site.

Lake County United members, veterans of battles for affordable health care and housing, began soliciting support. In July ’07 '08 they unveiled the plan at a town hall meeting at the Holy Family Catholic Church. About 900 people packed the pews.

The Reverend Melissa Earley took the microphone and cried, “I’m ready for a radical change in education in Waukegan. Are you ready?”

The crowd roared its assent.

Soon after, the Lake County Federation of Teachers cut its ties with Lake County United. A letter to the Waukegan school board from Deborah Phelps, president of the Federation of Teachers unit that represents office workers, leveled charges often made by charter foes.

“Charter schools will only serve the students they choose to serve,” Phelps said—despite the law prohibiting charter schools from handpicking students.

“The selection process of these students will become prejudiced and segregated, at the very least,” she continued—though the Rand Corporation had recently reported that students at Chicago charter schools had about the same racial makeup and prior test scores as their peers in the schools they’d left.

“It is greatly disturbing that this school will not be regulated in its curriculum, placement of students, and employment requirements,” Phelps concluded—though charter schools are bound by the terms of the charter they sign with the district and can be closed for failing to live up to those terms.

As charter supporters held rallies, detractors lobbied school administrators and both sides leveled claims and counterclaims in the media. But the seven people whose opinions mattered most remained publicly noncommittal—the Waukegan School Board.

The first American charter school opened in 1992 in Minnesota. Now, according to the most recent figures from the Center for Education Reform, nearly 4,600 charters operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia. More than 1.3 million pupils attend these schools, and another 365,000, including 13,000 in Illinois, have signed waiting lists.

“I don’t see an upper limit. There’s huge demand for charters, and if we were to meet demand, we could open another 1,000 or 2,000 right now,” says Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Once a pet cause of Republicans pressing for a free market in public education, charter schools now enjoy bipartisan support. In the final 2008 presidential debate, the candidates’ mutual admiration for charter schools constituted a rare point of agreement between them. Boasting that the number of charters in Chicago had doubled during his time in the state legislature, Barack Obama declared, “It is important for us to foster competition in the public school system.”

But the movement remains largely confined to large cities. “Charters are still primarily an urban phenomenon,” says Todd Ziebarth, vice president for policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “They’ve mostly cropped up where there is the biggest demand for more options, in the places that are shortchanging kids the most.”

In Illinois, a Republican-controlled legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of charter schools in 1996. Almost immediately they became a major component of Mayor Daley’s school reform program in Chicago. They’ve made barely a ripple in the rest of the state.

Sixty-eight charter schools now operate in Chicago despite a legislated ceiling of 30. Chicago charter operators circumvented the cap by exploiting a legal loophole—no longer available to new schools—that allowed them to open multiple campuses under a single charter.

Meanwhile, just two charter schools operate in the six-county area outside Chicago. These schools, Prairie Crossing in Grayslake and Cambridge Lakes in Pingree Grove, enroll fewer than 800 students—less than a tenth the number of students on Chicago’s charter waiting lists alone.

The failure of charters to catch on outside Chicago can be explained at least in part by Illinois charter law, which gives local school boards almost total control over whether charters operate. Local boards have the power to grant or deny charters, to refuse to renew charters, which come up for review every five years, and to rescind charters at any time.

Chester Finn of the procharter Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in D.C. likens school boards having this power to McDonald’s getting to decide whether it wants to give money to Burger King to open next door. Some states, recognizing the inherent conflict of interest, give charter-granting powers to other authorities, such as colleges and universities, nonprofits, and municipalities.

The clash between a school district and a charter can get nasty.

“They just crucified us as evil,” says Craig Malin, a founder of the Prairie Crossing school, which in 1998 became the first charter school in the Chicago suburbs. “We would get hate mail from teachers because there were a lot of people who thought that we were anti-public-schools. . . . We were going to start this school from scratch, which parents would choose over the district with all of its resources and assets, and that just drove them crazy.”

Laura Mudd says she faced similar opposition in 1999 when she and other parents tried to start a dual-language charter school in Evanston. The school board unanimously rejected the idea. “It was so telling about our district,” Mudd says. “You had all these parents who were so into it—but they didn’t want change. They critiqued every piece of it. They didn’t want the diversion of funds but they also didn’t like the site we’d chosen. They said the bus wasn’t going to be able to get in and out of the school. Those are the type of things you make work, but they just wanted to create obstacles.”

Charter organizers facing hostile school boards do have one avenue of appeal—the state board of education has the power to overturn a local board’s decision. This provision was written into the law in 1997, after a lobbying campaign by suburban groups frustrated by their inability to get local school boards to sign off on their charter proposals.

But the state board rarely exercises its override power: it’s denied all but 2 of 38 appeals.

Ben Schwarm, associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, says local school boards aren’t anticharter. But he says they have to consider the best interests of all the students in their districts, not simply the few who’d attend a charter school. The IASB supported the initial charter bill, he says. “We figured, here are these schools that are going to be free of a lot of these mandates and restrictions that we think sometimes get in the way of public schools. And we said, if they work, let’s spread those reforms to all schools.”

But school boards resist when they think the proposed charter will threaten the financial health of the district, Schwarm says. “The problems have generally been budgetary. That’s always been the number one thing.” And the Illinois supreme court has ruled that boards may reject charters solely on those grounds.

A 2007 study by the Chicago Civic Federation analyzed the financial impact of charter schools in Grayslake, Decatur, and Springfield. According to the Civic Federation analysis, the three schools received between 0.9 percent and 2.5 percent of their school districts’ operating funds during the 2004 school year while educating between 1.3 percent and 3 percent of the district’s students. Even if a district suffered a budget deficit in the year its charter school began operating, it bounced back. All three districts went on to register operating surpluses.

The report’s authors concluded, “The Illinois charter schools studied do not constitute an undue financial burden for districts, and school choice is worth the cost to those districts that value choice.”

Critics of the report said three case studies were too few to support such sweeping conclusions.

In Chicago, the relationship between charter schools and the school board is cooperative rather than adversarial. City charter schools receive their charters from the Chicago Board of Education, which is appointed by Mayor Daley, a longtime supporter of school choice. Daley has set the city’s school reform agenda since 1995, when major revisions to the Chicago School Reform Act gave him full authority to handpick the school board and the CEO of schools.

From the outset, Chicago approached chartering differently. Other districts “grudgingly issue charters to placate their supporters and then quietly hope the new schools will fail,” said a 2005 report from the Progressive Policy Institute, the D.C.-based think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council; but Chicago “actively seeks out prospective charter operators and considers the schools a vital part of its reform efforts.”

In 2004 Daley and schools CEO Arne Duncan launched the Renaissance 2010 initiative, a plan to create 100 new schools in high-need neighborhoods by 2010. Though only some would be charters, all would enjoy freedoms typically reserved for charters, including control over spending, the curriculum, and the length of the school day and year. To date CPS has opened 76 of these schools, 43 of them charters.

In addition, since 2005 CPS has designated 128 schools as Autonomous Management and Performance Schools, with charterlike freedom over budgeting and professional development. That’s 204 schools in all launched or retooled to operate as charters or quasi-charters—about a third of the public schools in Chicago.

Today Duncan, as President Obama’s education secretary, is shaping a national school reform agenda. In a March 10 address, Obama identified innovation and excellence as pillars of his education strategy and declared, “One of the places where much of that innovation occurs is in our most effective charter schools.” He urged state lawmakers to repeal laws limiting the number of charters.

“We’re at this really cool moment where a lot of forces are coming together, and we’re at the beginning of finding some really different ways of doing education in this country,” says Timothy Knowles, who runs the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. “And partly what charter schools have done is broken up this very calcified way of doing business.”

Knowles sees suburban schools swimming against the tide. “In the city there’s an appetite for bolder levels of intervention,” he says. “If you compare relatively successful suburban practices to relatively successful urban practices, and you consider the level of intentionality in urban schools, the focus of the work, the higher density of kids who are behind—our high-achieving urban schools are functioning at a much, much higher level.

“Typically [in the suburbs] you have a bunch of bureaucrats,” says Knowles, “who tend to declare victory for a living and aren’t willing to say this is broken, we have a problem.”

“The distinction between ‘suburban’ and ‘urban’ are more and more of a mistaken nomenclature,” says Beth Purvis, the CEO of Chicago International. “Kids are kids are kids. When we talk about alcohol, drug use, violence, gangs, kids without two parents, when we talk about years of poverty, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the Altgeld neighborhood on the south side of Chicago or about Waukegan.”

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has ratcheted up the pressure on increasingly diverse suburban schools. Because the law requires schools to separate test scores by race, income, and special learning needs, the schools can no longer camouflage the low scores of some students with the high scores of others.

Using No Child Left Behind data from 2006, researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago showed black and Latino students in Chicago’s public schools actually do better than their counterparts in the rest of the state. The city kids start out behind, but by eighth grade they’re outperforming other students of the same race and ethnicity. John Easton, executive director of the consortium, says the results suggest that “CPS does relatively better with traditionally underserved populations than the rest of the state does, and that answers for improvement lie in Chicago, rather than elsewhere.”

If that’s true, charter schools may be a significant factor. The district annually grades each charter against the neighborhood school its students otherwise would have attended, and the 2008 comparison found charter schools outperforming the local neighborhood schools on 84 percent of the student performance measures—including standardized test scores and attendance, graduation, transfer, and dropout rates.

Chicago International was the subject of a seminal 2005 report by Harvard economics professor Caroline Hoxby that suggested charter schools could close the achievement gap between middle-class white students in suburban schools and low-income minority students in urban schools. The study compared students who attended Chicago International schools with students who had applied to them but weren’t chosen in the lottery. The only difference between the Chicago International group and the control group seemed to be the random numbers they drew.

Hoxby found that the Chicago International students outperformed the others in math and reading by about 2.5 to 3 points a year. She wrote, “If the students continued to make such gains for each year they spent in charter schools (a big ‘if ’), then the gap between the charter school students and their suburban counterparts would close entirely after about five years of school. Right now, such projections are necessarily very speculative, but they help to give some sense of the magnitude of the charter-school effect.”

Education researchers continue to debate just how good charter schools really are. “I would say on average charter schools are doing no better, but there are some that are very successful,” says Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois. “And now it falls on researchers to figure out, what is it that they do?”

There’s a core group of charters that have proven uniquely effective at raising graduation rates and test scores in high-poverty areas. Education commentators and policy wonks have dubbed them “no-excuses” or “beating-the-odds” schools. These schools establish highly structured cultures that emphasize excellence, effort, and order. They reinforce the importance of college—hanging college pennants on the walls, naming classrooms after colleges, and frequently calling on even the youngest students to recite which year they will graduate from college. They extend the school year and the school day, and they maximize teaching time. They gather data on an ongoing basis about teachers and students and use that data to guide instruction. They enforce strict discipline codes. Few have to deal with unions or collective bargaining agreements. They rely heavily on young, inexperienced, idealistic teachers with top-notch academic credentials but little pedagogical training.

Without the freedoms charter schools enjoy—from union contracts, from a central district bureaucracy, from most of the Illinois School Code—many of the features that set them apart would be tough to duplicate, charter school leaders insist.

Chicago’s Noble Street Charter School network is one of the no-excuses schools. Superintendent Michael Milkie says he hires academic standouts who lack the certification to work in traditional schools, fires them if they don’t perform, and requires his students to spend 20 percent to 30 percent more time in front of teachers than the average Chicago Public Schools student. Noble Street students take four years of math, science, and English, and that includes a double period of math in tenth grade. Every student must take a yearlong class devoted to navigating the college admissions and matriculation process. Noble Street has rules and procedures that wouldn’t fly in most public schools: students may not sport visible tattoos, odd-colored hair, or clothes that are too baggy or too tight; shirts must be tucked in, laces tied, and pants worn at the waist; students who arrive more than three minutes late to class, violate the dress code, or carry an iPod or cell phone not only earn automatic detention but are fined $5.

“Schools would benefit by less bureaucracy, fewer rules, and more competition,” Milkie says. “It’s like any other industry. What charters do beautifully is respond to consumer needs. And if there is some other school that better serves low-income kids in the district, they’ll rise to the top.”

For what it’s worth, demand for admission at Chicago International is far greater than what can be supplied. For the 2007-’08 school year it received 4,312 applications for 1,500 places.

After touring Chicago International campuses, many Waukegan parents envied the kids who got in. Elizabeth Ochoa, a 2008 Waukegan High graduate, who joined the Lake County United crusade on behalf of her one-year-old daughter, said “It was like hope had landed.”

She described her impression of the Chicago United schools as if the visits had been a sort of dream:

“It feels like you’re walking into your house, if you feel secure in your house. . . . You don’t have to go through the metal detector. . . . You don’t feel that tension. . . . It’s so peaceful. The bell rang as soon as I was getting to the building. Students got into two lines. It’s like traffic, and the center line is for teachers or schoolmasters. And the teachers and deans or whatever, they’re just walking relaxed, and you’re talking about sixth grade through senior year, and none of them had a single girl pregnant.”

Ochoa compared the charter school classrooms with the ones she’d known at Waukegan High.

“The Waukegan classrooms, they were crowded. . . . You’d have that one student on the side sitting on the heater because there’s no room, and he ends up leaving to go to a different period because there’s nowhere for him to sit. Or sometimes someone would just walk out and go to the cafeteria. . . . And then that one kid with ADD disrupts, and you see that 40 minutes go by, and you stayed on the same page, on the same chapter, and you never moved.”

Ronnel Ewing is a Waukegan resident who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the local school system intimately. The computer consultant has two children who graduated from the high school, one who’s there now, and a fourth who’ll go there. His wife runs the district’s after-school program, and he mentors Waukegan teens through his church.

Ewing wants it understood that highly motivated students can thrive at Waukegan High. He has a son who took the college studies program and now attends Morehouse College on a four-year scholarship. The problem, Ewing says, is that expectations for the 90 percent of students who aren’t in the college studies program are dismally low.

“It’s at every level, that’s the thing that gets me. I have bumped into Waukegan administrators and teachers with professional degrees and doctorates and whatever they hold. . . . And most of them will go, ‘Well, we’re dealing with something that has limited ability to be effective anyway. You can’t do it without parents who speak English, you can’t do it with kids who come to school with the type of families these kids have.’ So they think they’re doing a service by meeting the budget and keeping the doors open and the kids safe.”

Waukegan students interviewed during their lunch period largely agreed with Ewing’s assessment. Erick Garza, a senior, sat with a group of friends in the senior cafeteria and explained that it was sparsely populated because so many of his classmates had dropped out to work and support their families. Garza’s lunch pals were all in the college studies program and all planned to go to college this fall. All but one will be the first in their families to attend college. The seniors agreed they’ve had good teachers. But “if a teacher isn’t CSP, they don’t take their job seriously,” Garza said. “They don’t keep track of anybody’s work. And if the teachers don’t care, the students won’t either. The classes are really dumbed-down. I know it sounds bad to say, but . . .”

Sophomore Rachel Hutchinson said the same thing. “It seems like if you’re not in CSP, you’re done.”

Carter Bell, a Waukegan High graduate, is now a ROTC instructor at the school. He’s also the spearhead of a campaign to reshape the school that began seven years ago. Bell’s story of the uphill battle by the restructuring committee that was formed then demonstrates why so many parents had given up on the high school. At every step in the process, Bell says, the committee bumped up against what George W. Bush labeled the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” A case in point: Bell says the most ardent critics of a proposal to require three and a half years of social studies for graduation were the social studies teachers. “They said it would bring down graduation rates,” he says. “I’ve been in several meetings where teachers have said, ‘These are poor minority kids, there’s nothing we can do for them.’”

But next year the high school will carry out the committee’s plan. Administrators intend to break the school into ten small learning communities, or “houses,” each with its own dean, secretary, counselor, social worker, and safety coordinator. Bell speaks passionately about the small-schools initiative; he predicts the more intimate atmosphere, combined with a more rigorous curriculum, will significantly improve test scores and behavior.

The new program has already accomplished one thing: it gave school board members a compelling justification for saying no to the charter school.

On November 18 about 1,500 people, hundreds of them charter school supporters sporting red-and-white T-shirts, packed a public hearing on the Waukegan Prep proposal. For nearly four hours school district administrators and school board members grilled Chicago International’s Beth Purvis and picked apart the charter’s application.

“At that point, we knew we were sunk,” says Tom Lenz.

The gulf between the two sides is palpable in a reading of the hearing’s transcript. When Purvis was not thanking her interrogators for an “excellent question”—something she did repeatedly—she was reminding them that if her estimates were off target and her details sketchy, it was because she’d asked the school board for specifics she could never get.

“For the benefit of the audience, you initially asked us for $65,000 for a special ed teacher,” said Jules Gaudin, chief operating officer for the Waukegan public schools. “The typical state reimbursement when we hire a special ed teacher is $9,000 per person. Could you comment on that?”

Purvis replied, “I would like to be able to respond to that when I have more information in front of me. I would also like to say, Mr. Gaudin, I did reach out to you and ask if we could have a conversation to talk about some of these issues. And I was not granted that meeting.”

The red-and-white-clad audience let Purvis know it was behind her.

“No clapping please,” said June Maguire, president of the school board.

At another point board member Bill Anderson reminded Purvis that she was legally obligated to submit a proposed contract and that the one the school board had received, drawn up on the Chicago Public Schools template and was unacceptable.

“We were just doing our best effort at this point,” Purvis said. “We didn’t have a copy of a contract that you all would use so we had something that we used. . . . We didn’t want an assumption of what you would want that contract to look like.”

“Right,” said Donaldo Batiste, the superintendent of schools. “But the statute said that you must do this.”

Purvis: “Again, I will say that we asked for conversations and were not responded to.”

Batiste: “You asked for a conversation actually after you submitted your application and it was not before.”

Purvis: “I have been at four meetings with this group. I did not receive anything.”

Ultimately, the greatest obstacle that Chicago International might have had to surmount was the perception of it as a Chicago solution to a Waukegan problem that involved only a small number of Waukegan students. The school board’s solution to the admitted failings of its high school would, in theory, benefit every student. It was the small-schools concept championed by Carter Bell.

Board member Anita Hanna told Purvis, “Your proposal also does not take into consideration the reduction in resources that will be available to District 60 to allocate towards the smaller learning communities project. . . . Why should the board take funds from the smaller learning communities project that will serve 4,000, with the annual enrollment increases that happens each school year, for a smaller group of 600, thereby slighting the many for a few?”

Purvis replied that she simply didn’t think of her charter school in those terms. “We will be educating students that are part of the Waukegan community and part of this district,” she said. “And our goal is not to think about this taking money for students who are outside of the district, but to look at it as these are students who are in the district who will be served in a tenth smaller learning community.”

The board was not persuaded.

Ten days later the recommendation of Superintendent Batiste and his review team was posted on the Waukegan Public Schools Web site. It was a 21-page response, and it began by conceding the “staggering demographics of the high school (low achievement rate and high drop-out rates).” But it said the school district was already doing something about this problem. “After thorough, careful, deliberative and exhaustive study and research of educational models available, the high school administration and staff recommended to the district that the bold step of implementing the Smaller Learning Communities (SLC) model be implemented.” The board of education had approved $2 million to prepare the high school to adopt this model. Once these SLCs “have taken root,” the administration was confident that “this model will result in academic success, improved graduation rates and decreased drop-out rates.”

As for the charter school idea, Batiste and his review team emphatically opposed it. They called it economically unsound—for both the school district and the charter school itself —and said it fell short in all sorts of specific ways, such as in meeting the needs of students with disabilities or those speaking English as a second language. Purvis had spoken at length on both these issues at the public hearing, describing how Chicago International dealt with them at its other schools.

Four days later the board met to vote. First, each board member had a say. Bill Anderson said, “It would not be healthy for Waukegan to divert this massive amount of money for a selective few students.”

Michael Rodriguez accused Lake County United of intimidation tactics. Your campaign, he said, “bears more resemblance to a hostile takeover than a partnership. The approach you have taken has been hostile and confrontational rather than friendly and cooperative.”

Anita Hanna wondered, “How can we justify sacrificing the larger student population and services we provide to students . . . to accommodate a smaller group of students?” Besides, she said, “we already have an established somewhat charter high school here in Waukegan, that high school being St. Martin De Porres.”

Domingo Garza (Erick’s uncle) praised the Lake County United movement for the massive turnout of parents at the November 18 meeting and wondered, “Now, why can’t we do that here?” But he said, “If the charter schools can do it, so can our nine small learning centers do it also as well, so I’m voting no for the charter school with the caveat that I do strongly support the charter school.” But not here and now. “Maybe two years down the road.”

Only Mark Hawn sided with Lake County United. “What does competition do? It makes you better,” he said. “We don’t have competition. You can say St. Martin De Porres is competition. They have a graduating class of about 30. By the way, I think they graduated them all. It’s not a charter school. It’s a private school funded by private enterprises.”

Hawn went on, “I feel so frustrated. The federal government, the state government, and, yeah, I’ll say it, the unions and some of their rulers don’t allow us to do what we need to do. We can’t even fire people that steal from us. It takes us a year. How frustrating is that?”

Hawn voted for the charter proposal; six board members voted against it. After the defeat, Beth Purvis said Waukegan was missing the necessary “spirit of collaboration.” She told the local News-Sun, “We wish they saw us as a partner. In Chicago they see us as part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Lake County United didn’t give up. The coalition organized a get-out-the-vote campaign for last month’s school board elections and published a voter guide that included the candidates’ stances on a number of issues, charter schools among them. All six candidates—including four incumbents who’d voted against Chicago International—said they were willing to consider a charter school in Waukegan.

Said Hanna, “Charter schools do educate children, never questioned the fact.” Anderson said a charter school would be most effective at the middle school level. Rodriguez said he was open to the charter school concept “in principle” and noted that his daughter taught at a charter school. Maguire said she could support a charter school “provided the chartering school has an impeccable record of performance on a longitudinal plane showing verifiable evidence for sustainability and able to withstand public review and scrutiny.”

The four incumbents were all reelected. Lake County United leaders say they’re ready to work with the board to fashion a charter school proposal that will withstand its scrutiny.   

Emily Krone is a 2008 fellow with the Phillips Foundation.

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