March 1, 2021; Catalyst Chicago and Chicago Sun-Times
What will it mean to become a public school? Who is accountable for the standard and effectiveness from the public schools in your neighborhood? Using the quality of public education a front-page issue, it should be easy for parents, taxpayers, and voters to understand that has responsibility for how public schools do their job. But recent events in Chicago tell us that answering these questions might be harder than you think.
This week, a little incident involving three Chicago charter schools became the latest illustration of how complex these questions are and how difficult it might be for citizens to understand how public schools connect to them. The Chicago Board of Education, appointed through the city's elected mayor, would seem to be faced with the task of educating the 400,000 children who attend the city's public schools. Three years ago, they provided the decision to close almost 50 district-run schools to satisfy the academic and fiscal urgencies of a struggling system. But when they decided to close three academically struggling charter schools this fall, their power over public education was proven to be something less than full control.
Tuesday evening, the Illinois Charter School Commission, which is appointed by the state's governor and not the city's mayor, reversed the Chicago Board's decision and took control of the 3 charter schools' continued operations. Kalyn Belsha, covering the Commission's meeting for Catalyst Chicago, asserted CSC Executive Hosanna Mahaley Jones acknowledged \”the schools were underperforming by both commission and district standards, [but] even so, she recommended that members accept the schools' appeals to stay open.\”
The situation in Chicago represents an increasing diffusion of government accountability for public education. Inside a statement, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Forrest Claypool called on state legislators to \”restore local control\” and \”rein in\” the state commission:
\”Charter schools which are neglecting to teach children basic math and reading skills ought to be closed, and the dollars reinvested in schools capable of preparing students for future life success.\”
But he and his board no longer have the clear authority to enforce their standards. So, who is actually responsible for the almost $5.7 billion spent on public education in Chicago? Who's actually accountable for the academic performance from the 650 schools, district-operated and charter, as well as their 400,000 students?
When he last stood for re-election in the wake of the controversy within the closing of 50 public schools, Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel heard directly from upset parents, the teachers' union, and community leaders regarding their unhappiness together with his school board. Their votes for his opponent were enough to force the mayor into an unprecedented run-off election and led him to apologize for not hearing the voices of his community. But where do those dissatisfied with public schools in Chicago now turn? Where do those who work in Newark, Detroit, or New Orleans turn?
When the lines of accountability to people whose youngsters are being shown and those whose taxes from federal, state, and native sources are now being spent become blurred, even broken, the very essence of public schools in a democratic society is threatened. The commitment of better outcomes that often precedes the limiting or ending of local charge of public education may not be worth their cost when they break the tie between school and citizen.