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The folks at Illinois Network of Charter Schools released a statement today addressing a pair of news reports that they say inaccurately depict charter schools. We are running their response, too, because we notice that the mainstream media discourse on charters is often clouded by misconceptions and myopia.

The articles also missed a larger truth about charter schools:  charter schools are schools of choice, unlike traditional public schools and the magnet schools referenced in the articles.  This means that students may choose to attend charter schools or, if those students determine that the school is not serving their needs, they may choose to leave.  Providing diverse, tailored options should be viewed as a benefit to the system not a drawback.

Charter schools are also far from monolithic.  They serve diverse populations within the school system and each is tailored to serve a pressing student need within CPS. KIPP Ascend, for instance, uses a college-going culture to prepare elementary students for lifelong success and has a very different mission that Youth Connections Charter Schools, a drop-out prevention and recovery network designed to serve students who have struggled in a traditional high school setting.  In the context of such disparate models, it is very difficult to generalize results.

Not every charter school is perfect, and the charter school model may not fit every student who chooses to attend. Indeed, it is not uncommon for students who transfer into charter schools to take some time to adjust, a point acknowledged in the Catalyst article.  Charter schools typically have longer school days, longer school years, and higher academic and behavioral expectations for their students.  This is something that those of us working to improve public education should applaud, not decry.  Frankly, I wish all of our public school students had the benefit of similar settings where they can be challenged, held accountable, and receive the benefit of additional instructional time.

Does this mean that there haven’t been instances of counseling out among the 41,000 students attending charter schools in Chicago?  No, but that is why we at INCS support authorizers who enforce the open enrollment provisions of the charter school law strictly to ensure that all students have an equal chance of enrolling in a high quality school of choice.  It is also why we work directly with charter schools and charter school networks every day to help them understand the provisions of law and make decisions that benefit students directly.

Perhaps most curious is the article’s claim that “[m]agnet schools are comparable to charter schools, with lotteries for coveted seats and no attendance boundaries.”  Magnet schools may be comparable to charter schools in the narrow sense that they may be oversubscribed, but magnet schools have express enrollment preferences and frequently condition enrollment on test scores, something charter schools are prohibited from doing.  This fact alone makes any magnet school comparison inapt.  If one were to examine magnet school achievement data, for instance, it becomes immediately apparent that comparing such a school to an open enrollment charter school produces only heat, no light.  Even a passing glance at magnet school admissions policies reveals why their student mobility rates are far lower than open enrollment schools, charter or traditional public.

One thing charter schools will not do is apologize for having high standards and expecting more out of teachers and students.  After all, nothing is more important to our city’s future than creating schools where student needs are put ahead of all other considerations.  For too long in our city we have tolerated a public school system that produces graduates who are not college or work ready and have made excuses for why certain students could not succeed.  Thankfully, there are many schools today in Chicago, charter and traditional public that are proving that school organization, teacher quality, student discipline, and true accountability matter.

Charter schools that succeed do so because they are intentional about setting a culture of high expectations that permeate the school.  This culture touches on every aspect of the school’s organization and is designed to create an environment in which students can thrive.  This culture is evidenced by the fact that charter high schools, unlike traditional high schools, do not have any metal detectors.  Despite this lack of “protection,” incidents of violence in charter schools are far fewer than those in traditional public schools.  A cynic might claim this is because charter schools just happen to enroll more peaceful students; a realist would understand that getting school culture right is the first step in creating schools that actually work for our students.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) is dedicated to improving the quality of public education by promoting and invigorating the charter school concept. The voice of the state’s charter schools, INCS advocates for legislation to strengthen charter schools, educates the public about the value of charter schools, and supports the dissemination of best practices throughout the system.

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