There’s been a lot of hubbub about the Wendell Smith Local School Council voting to turn the CPS elementary school into a charter school.
Is it legal? Are they crazy? Will this be the change that the community has needed?
Before I make a stab at addressing those questions, let me go back in time. This is a situation that has been brewing for many years, and there’s a lot to learn from its history.
Here’s what we wrote about the situation back in 2002:
Early in 2000, the Wendell Smith principal ignored the objections of the Smith LSC and submitted an unapproved budget to the central office. The LSC had disagreed with the principal’s idea that the school of 650 students needed both a disciplinarian and a school-wide coordinator paid for out of discretionary funds. The LSC wanted to see some of that money go towards purchasing new textbooks to replace the out-of-date series the school used. Later the LSC began to ask what happened to several computers which had been donated to the school; they never found out.
The regional office and School and Community Relations (SCR) ignored the LSC’s complaints that the budget and SIP the principal was implementing had not been approved by the LSC. Instead, the Accountability Office sent in investigators who determined (surprise, surprise) that the LSC was causing all of the problems at the school. Early on, the Board indicated support for the LSC and a public recognition that the SIP and budget should not be implemented without LSC approval. However, after the LSC refused to approve the principal’s illegal expenditures retroactively, the Board moved to declare an educational crisis at the school, blaming the LSC’s lack of cooperation. The LSC was disbanded.
The former Wendell Smith LSC filed a pending lawsuit against the Board. Two of the ousted members were re-elected in May, 2002.
The Board also eventually removed the principal. Still, shortly thereafter, then Board President Michael Scott gave the most outspoken of the Wendell Smith LSC members, Bertrand Murrell, a generous consultant’s contract to referee LSC disputes.
Conflicts of this kind are not uncommon, and in PURE’s experience, they often arise out of the LSC’s genuine concern that the school is not adequately serving students. PURE worked long hours with the Wendell Smith LSC, trying to help uphold the LSC’s right and their position that their students needed textbooks and other resources more than they needed extra highly-paid administrators.
In this case, CPS decided to get rid of the messenger.
And things did not seem to improve much as a result of the Board’s intervention. An August, 2010, Catalyst article detailing the inequity in educational opportunity across Chicago neighborhoods used Wendell Smith as an example of an under-resourced school: “The clearest evidence is the library. On each shelf, a few books lean against each other, gathering dust. Worn, used chairs and tables are scattered about. There are no computers and no librarian—and so, no students.”
Legal? Crazy? Understandable?
Here’s the language of the school code about converting a regular public school into a charter school:
27a – 8 In the case of a proposal to establish a charter school by converting an existing public school or attendance center to charter school status, evidence that the proposed formation of the charter school has received majority support from certified teachers and from parents and guardians in the school or attendance center affected by the proposed charter, and, if applicable, from a local school council, shall be demonstrated by a petition in support of the charter school signed by certified teachers and a petition in support of the charter school signed by parents and guardians and, if applicable, by a vote of the local school council held at a public meeting.
So, the LSC vote can be part of a legitimate process, but the certified teachers and parents also have a say.
It’s unlikely that there would be a majority vote by the teachers agreeing to the charterization.
What about the parents? Well, Phyllis Lockett and the generous folks at the New Schools for Chicago (formerly the Renaissance Schools Fund) have their mitts all over the situation at Smith. That’s one reason why PURE and Parents Across America oppose parent trigger laws – we know that charter schools can leverage plenty of cash to hire door-to-door canvassers who gather signatures and otherwise try to co-opt parents to agree to let charters can take over schools.
The LSC must know that there are no LSCs in charter schools (although an LSC-led proposal could write one in). They may not be as aware of the fact that most charter schools are not better than traditional schools, and that charters have a reputation for pushing out some of the most challenging students (which could mean YOUR child).
But as an indication of the level of frustration that many parents have with CPS, this is real, folks. Here’s a school where the parents and LSC have tried for years to improve their school, with little help and a lot of interference from CPS.
We need to make sure that the real culprit is identified in this story, and it’s not the LSC. We also need to be sure that those who want to take advantage of parents and LSCs for their own benefit don’t get that chance.