Students and community leaders have protested plans to open a new charter school across the street from Prosser High School, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears to be pushing ahead.
Students and community leaders have protested plans to open a new charter school across the street from Prosser High School, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears to be pushing ahead. Credit: Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times Media

Combatants in the great charter school debate went toe-to-toe a couple of weeks ago in a bout that should have been broadcast live on TV.

It wasn’t Karen Lewis duking it out in the ring with Mayor Rahm Emanuel—a fight we all want to see. But it was almost as good.

Some of the officials who operate the Noble and Intrinsic charter networks—well-connected power players in the charter school movement—came to a northwest-side church to answer sharp questions from their critics, many of whom were members of the teachers’ union.

It was the December meeting of the area’s neighborhood advisory council, a group set up by the Board of Education to offer advice on whether the board should dole out precious money for two new charter high schools on the northwest side.

Not that there’s any doubt about what the board is going to decide, regardless of the feedback it gets.

Let’s be honest: Mayor Emanuel has made it clear he intends to expand charters, even as he cuts the budgets for regular schools. Most charters are nonunion, so the more he creates, the more he diminishes the power of the teachers’ union.

I should note that the mayor and other charter supporters claim new schools are needed to alleviate overcrowding, even though there are no overcrowded high schools in the communities that would get these new charters.

Hey, don’t blame me—I never said the mayor’s policies made sense.

As always, the mayor has to maintain the pretense that the process is open even if the deal is done. So the leaders of the Chicago Public Schools created the advisory process to go through the routine of listening to some views in the community.

But the creation of the advisory council was overseen by New Schools for Chicago—a nonprofit consortium featuring some of the city’s wealthiest charter school backers. And the facilitator of the council itself was Juan Jose Gonzalez, the Chicago director of Stand for Children, another consortium of wealthy charter school backers.

Any northwest-side resident was free to join the advisory council. And for about three months, the group dutifully met to consider whether Intrinsic and Noble met the criteria the board had established to run a charter school.

The council was asked to evaluate how the charters performed in the past. But Intrinsic has only run one school for a year, so the organization doesn’t have an academic record to run on.

In addition, Intrinsic hasn’t selected a location for its proposed new school. So it’s pretty hard to evaluate the school’s facilities plan if it doesn’t have a facility.

At least Noble had a site for its latest proposed charter. The problem is that it’s in an abandoned lumberyard across the street from Prosser High School. Some Prosser parents are worried that there could be routine scuffles between the students as they go to and from school, and some Prosser staff worry that the charters will siphon off some of their most promising students.

Part of me thinks that the real goal is to replicate what’s happened on the west and south sides, where newly created charters drew enough students from the schools to help justify closing 50 of them.

But then I remember that the mayor says he’s doing all of this for the children.

As always, the mayor has to maintain the pretense that the process is open even if the deal is done.

In any event, before the advisory council gave CPS any advice, the group wanted to hear from the community. In fact, many of the council members wanted to hold the meeting at Prosser, but CPS officials said that Prosser was off-limits because it wasn’t a neutral site.

Let’s pause to ponder that point: It’s OK to have charter school cheerleaders facilitate the process, but it’s unfair to have the hearing in a regular public school.

Because you wouldn’t to take the chance that too many unionized teachers show up.

And so on December 11 the council held a meeting at the Northwest Community Church, at 5318 W. Diversey. More than 200 people showed up—not a bad turnout on a bitterly cold Wednesday night—including local public school parents and teachers and union activists.

Several CPS bureaucrats—looking ominous and grim as always—stood along the wall.

One of the leaders of the advisory council read questions submitted by audience members. The charter operators sitting at the front of the room then gave their responses.

Let me pause to give a shout-out to Noble—the operation was at the top of its game. It was hard not to be moved by the parents who described how their children had benefited from Noble’s rigorous discipline.

And Noble’s chief development officer, Rhonda Kochlefl, was nothing but cool as she fielded hostile questions from the crowd.

Intrinsic CEO Melissa Zaikos was also unflappable, though she stumbled when asked how her schools were different from those operated by the United Neighborhood Organization, which has also expanded into the northwest side, and which has been embroiled in a contracting scandal.

Clearly not wanting to bad-mouth another charter operator, Zaikos said she didn’t know much about UNO’s troubles, but promised to run a transparent operation.

Of course, UNO’s leaders have made essentially the same transparency pledge, even as their lawyers are fighting like the devil to block public access to basic financial information that ordinary public schools have to disclose.

For me the highlight of the hearing came when Noble officials were asked what they would do if their teachers voted to form a union.

Silence. The Noble reps exchanged looks, as though they were quietly trying to decide who would get stuck with the job of handling this hot potato.

At which point some wisenheimer from the back of the room called out: “Terminate them!”

See, you really can’t take these teachers anywhere.

Eventually one of the Noble officials said, “Noble is not for unions, but if that’s something that they want to do, we will abide.”

Hear that teachers? Get to work.

The advisory council members wound up voting eight to seven to endorse both schools. The matter now goes to the board. Gee, wonder how it’ll vote.

Here’s what’s weird. One of Noble’s biggest backers—the network even named a school after him—is hedge-fund gazillionaire Bruce Rauner, who happens to be the leading Republican candidate for governor.

He’s also on the board of New Schools for Chicago and is a big backer of Stand for Children.

Rauner vows to be even tougher on teachers than Mayor Emanuel—if that’s possible. He says that if he’s elected, he’ll make big cuts in pensions that will affect teachers at all schools.

So a word of warning, charter teachers: beware of your friends.