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Charter schools 101

A primer on Chicago's uncharted public education waters

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Charters are publicly funded schools that are exempt from many of the hiring and firing rules other public schools have to follow. For instance, they can hire and fire teachers without regard to tenure or seniority and pay them less than what the union contract requires. They're also allowed to draw up their own budgets with almost no oversight from city or state officials.

Their supporters see them as safe havens for working-class families seeking an alternative to dysfunctional neighborhood schools. Teachers at regular schools, on the other hand, see them as a club used by policy makers and politicians to hammer at unions.

At the moment, both sides are engaged in a raging debate over classroom accountability in which no test score, graduation rate, or performance indicator is too minute to be scrutinized. But left out of the debate—at least in Chicago—is how the charters spend the millions they get from the state and the Chicago Public Schools.

CPS posts the salaries, positions, and hire dates of all its employees as well as budgets for each of its 600 or so regular schools—so that any parent or citizen can see, at a glance, how educational dollars are spent.

But the charters are the exception.

It's hard enough to find out the total number of tax dollars CPS sends the charters each year—it turns out to be $293 million, according to page 121 of the 430-page CPS budget for 2010-11. But it's almost impossible to figure out the details of how charters spend this money.

The only budgetary records charters are required to submit to CPS are 22-line quarterly reports that describe millions of dollars of spending in broad terms such as "direct student costs" and "office and administration." But the reports are not posted online or readily available to the public. To find out more, you have to file an official Freedom of Information Act request. (Here's what we found when we filed ours.)

The secrecy might be easier to stomach if charters weren't the flavor of the day in public education; Mayor Rahm Emanuel, following Mayor Daley's lead, has vowed to add more of these schools following the closure of underperforming and low-enrollment public schools in poor neighborhoods.

In the last school year there were 37 charter operators running 82 campuses in Chicago, up from 71 campuses a year earlier, according to the CPS annual budget. The state board of education says there are more than 40,000 students enrolled in the schools, accounting for roughly 10 percent of the CPS total.

Mayor Emanuel has also peppered his school appointments with charter school advocates. Penny Pritzker, one of the mayor's handpicked school board members, has a charter campus named for her because of all the money she donated to it. Noemi Donoso, the chief education officer for CPS, previously oversaw charters for Denver's school system and worked as a charter school administrator in Los Angeles. And Timothy Knowles, who was on Emanuel's education transition team, is the director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, which oversees four charter campuses on the south side. In June, Jean-Claude Brizard, the CEO of CPS, named Knowles to a task force charged with conducting a "forensic audit" of testing and graduation statistics to analyze how to spend district resources. This month Margot Pritzker, the wife of Penny's cousin, was tapped to chair the board of the University of Chicago charter.

Incidentally, the University of Chicago charter was among those that did not fully comply with our FOIA request—officials there gave us a list of employee names and salaries but not positions. So close.

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