An Opportunity for Charter School Expansion in Chicago

Abandoned buildings litter the city of Chicago, especially in the lower income South and West sides. Countless houses, apartment buildings, and even churches lie vacant, serving as unsightly reminders of economic distress and providing safe havens for criminal activity.

Perhaps the most tragic yet promising facet of this mass desertion, however, is the recent wave of school closures. In May, The Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 of the city’s public schools-the largest number of simultaneous school closures in the country’s history–citing the underutilization of many schools, as well as a financial need for consolidation, as the chief causes of their decision.

While concerns of plummeting property values and increased unemployment abound in the wake of these school closings, charter school advocates have reason to remain optimistic.

Chicago has seen significant demand for charter schools in recent years. Andrew Broy of the Illinois Charter Schools estimates that 19,000 students are currently on the charter school waiting list. In the past, there has been insufficient space to accommodate nascent charter schools, and therefore an insufficient number of charter schools to accommodate the ever-increasing student demand.

Former CPS Interim CEO Terry Mazany underscored this shortfall when he suggested to the Chicago Sun Times that “the city’s public schools have such a backlog of charter schools in need of buildings that the system should declare a one-year moratorium on new charter operators.”

The recent school closures provide a compelling solution to this problem. Ample school vacancies coupled with significant numbers of displaced students create the optimal climate for charter school growth.

Chicago Public Schools have begun to show support for this expansion. In fact, CPS recently posted a 52-page document requesting that charter schools apply to operate in the city. Beginning in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, the district hopes that charters will open in 11 neighborhoods plagued by chronic overcrowding.

Beyond just alleviating overcrowding, an increase in the number of charter schools could vastly improve the quality of education in Chicago. For example, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ 2013 National Charter School Study provides a side-by-side comparison of traditional public school performance and charter school performance in Chicago that highlights the overwhelming superiority of a charter school education. On the elementary school level, Chicago charter school students achieve greater overall gains in reading and math. Further, the study reports that from 2008-12, 4 out of 5 charter schools outperformed traditional public schools in math and English-an average of two additional weeks’ growth in reading and one additional month’s growth in math for charter school students.

The student outcomes for low-income and minority students are even more impressive, particularly for African-American and Latino students. The average Latino charter school student in Chicago, for instance, gains more learning in one year than the average white student. The educational gains that charter schools offer Latino and African-American students would be especially beneficial in Chicago, as they comprise a significant portion of the students served by the 50 now-shuttered schools.

Charter schools should seize the opportunity to expand while they can, before the newly vacant schools are overrun by crime, demolished, or otherwise repurposed.