Friday, February 20, 2015

Chicago's hard-hit suburban schools resist charter invasion

Parents, teachers, activists, and students showed up at the Chicago Heights District #170 Board meeting on Feb. 12 to oppose opening the district to the LEARN Charter School Network. LEARN was voted down by an almost unanimous vote. (John Booz, Tribune)
Chicago Heights is a south-of-the-city suburb with a high concentration of poverty and a rapidly-growing Mexican immigrant population. District #170 schools have in many ways borne the brunt of an eroding tax base, loss of manufacturing jobs and the recession of the past decade. While the schools struggle to implement the district's reform plan, including a new middle-grade STEM academy, and prepare at the same time, for the next round of PARCC tests, progress remains slow. Test scores remain the carte du jour for judging schools and teachers, leaving districts like the Heights vulnerable to interventions by the state.

Gov. Rauner now threatens even more draconian cuts to school budgets and health and social services that will negatively impact the schools and communities in Chicago's inner-ring suburbs. He's proposing that suburbs' income tax revenue be cut in half

Towns like Chicago Heights have become the new target areas for poorly-regulated, expanding networks of privately-run charter schools which have already saturated the inner-city market. Recently, District #149 in Dolton/Calumet City was able to beat back a charter takeover attempt by over-hyped Urban Prep.

Nearby South Holland also rejected an assault on their district by a company called LIFE Academy Charters. Their board also voted unanimously in September 2013 to reject a charter proposal by Urban Prep.

Now District #170 is being targeted by the LEARN Charter Network which has a dismal track record of low performance, lots of unlicensed teachers, and a record of exclusion of English language learners and students with special needs. But at last week's meeting, a near unanimous vote by board members, to the delight of a cheering crowd of parents and teachers, scuttled the expansion plans of the charter operators -- at least for now.

With heavy financial backing from big hitters like the Walton Family, and political support from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), LEARN is preparing to appeal its rejection to Rauner's State Charter School Commission. LEARN's director Greg White, founder of Chicago Venture Partners, with no background in education, thinks he will get a better deal from the corporate cronies who sit on the Commission. With Rauner in the gov's mansion and his newly-appointed board president, Rev. James Meeks, a voucher/charter advocate in place, White may be right.

All the Chicago Heights board and Supt. Tom Amadio can do is make their case for survival, show off the slow but steady academic progress they are making, rally their troops again with help from the teachers union, and hope for the best.

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