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In Chicago, charter schools remain untouchable

Aldermen kill a proposal to discuss school policies but find time to take on Eliot Ness.

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With Chicago's public schools so broke that Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to close 50 of them last year, you'd think the City Council would have more on its agenda than Eliot Ness, a crime fighter during Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s.

But last week the council buried a proposal to hold hearings on the mayor's ambitious plan to expand charter schools, assigning it to the infamous rules committee. That's where the mayor and his allies send proposals to die.

In contrast, a resolution on the all-important issue of naming a federal building in Washington after Ness—well, that became a priority.

Even the Untouchables would have a hard time slowing the mayor's charter push. The Chicago Board of Education is set to approve up to 21 new charter schools this week.

Yet I can think of a million reasons the expansion should be put on hold. For starters, the more money the mayor spends building new charters, the less money he has for existing schools that are already so broke they're worried about paying for toilet paper.

As a city, we've never had a debate on this wider issue: Should we be building new schools of any kind when we can't afford to adequately fund the ones we have?

Moreover, if Mayor Emanuel's so determined to build new schools, why do they have to be charters?

The mayor says we need to bring in private operators to give parents more choices.

Sounds great! But in reality, charters do no better than other local schools on standardized tests—which is how we judge schools these days. In many cases, they do worse.

Plus, they're privately run operations. That means they don't abide by the same standards of transparency as regular public schools.

If you don't believe me, ask Dan Mihalopoulos. He's the ace investigative reporter for the Sun-Times who went to court to try to force UNO—one of the biggest charter operators in the state—to turn over records of how they spent millions of public dollars.

Another charter operator—the Chicago Math and Science Academy—has argued in court that it's not even a public school, though it's largely funded with public money. That's part of the school's legal fight against an effort by its teachers to unionize.

Yes, that's right: teachers who want to unionize. And now we've run into the elephant in the room.

Charter operators tend to be militantly nonunion, which is why I suspect power-hungry politicians like Mayor Emanuel love them so much.

The more charters he creates, the less power the Chicago Teachers Union has—and the more power Mayor Emanuel can amass, as if he needs more.

In fairness to the Chicago Public Schools—an operation that needs all the defending it can get—the district did create local advisory councils to review the latest charter school proposals, which are supposed to alleviate overcrowding on the northwest and southwest sides.

But CPS officials told the members of these councils that discussions should be limited to the specifics of the new charter proposals. They were not—let me repeat, not—permitted to talk about the larger issue of whether we should create any charters at all.

In short, Mayor Emanuel has already decided to spend money on new charters—so just go along with the program, damn it!

But 36th Ward alderman Nicholas Sposato decided that if CPS wasn't going to hold hearings on the broader questions, the City Council should.

In short, Mayor Emanuel has already decided to spend money on new charters—so just go along with the program, damn it!

After all, people usually bitch to their alderman when something goes wrong with the schools. That's how Sposato wound up holding a toilet paper drive for the cash-starved schools in his northwest-side ward.

"We're the ones people call," Sposato says. "They can't get through to the mayor's office or the Board of Education."

Sposato decided to introduce a resolution calling on the City Council and CPS to do a larger analysis of "the potential negative effects a charter expansion could have on existing schools." It also asked them to consider "more cost-effective approaches to relieve school overcrowding," such as constructing annexes or leasing additional space.

"I'm not telling them they can't open new charters," says Sposato. "But they should at least consider the alternatives."

He drafted the proposed resolution last Monday—two days before the January 15 meeting. As word of his proposal spread, he got a call from a council colleague—he doesn't want to say which one—who asked to see a copy of it. "So I sent it over," Sposato says.

Within a few minutes, he got another call, this time from the mayor's legislative liaison asking him to hold off on the resolution.

"That alderman went straight to the mayor's office," says Sposato. "I tell you—there are no secrets in this place."

He says his phone rang again a few minutes later. The call was from an official at CPS.

Apparently, word gets around fast.

"They really didn't want this thing getting an airing," Sposato says. "This tells me the new charters are a done deal."

Sposato introduced his resolution anyway—he even got 11 other aldermen to sign on. He asked that it be sent to the council's education committee, since—well, I think we all know why a resolution about schools should go to the education committee.

But under City Council rules, if any one alderman requests that a proposal go to the rules committee, that's where it's sent.

An alderman doesn't even have to make the request publicly. "All you have to do is go over to the clerk and ask that it go to rules," says Alderman Scott Waguespack, one of Sposato's more independent colleagues. "It's kind of sneaky, but this happens all the time."

I called Alderman Michelle Harris, who chairs the rules committee, to ask if she would hold a hearing on Sposato's proposal. She didn't respond.

In the meantime, the Eliot Ness legislation was proposed by Aldermen Ed Burke and James Balcer, both mayoral allies, to put it mildly. Apparently they really, really, really don't want the feds to name a building after Ness.

"Whereas Eliot Ness suffered from bouts of heavy drinking," it says, and "whereas he was compelled to resign after a late-night drunken driving incident" and "whereas he ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Cleveland" and "whereas . . . "

That resolution went straight to the public safety committee, which is chaired by Balcer, who says he plans to hold a hearing on it.

So the Ness proposal lives. And the resolution about charter schools—which affect how we spend millions of dollars to educate our kids—is sentenced to a quiet death.

Here's a suggestion for Alderman Sposato. The next time Burke, Balcer, or one of the mayor's other allies introduces a resolution, send it to rules. If the mayor's determined to turn the council into a joke, you might as well get in on the laughs.

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