The latest round of charter school expansion in Chicago has been met with a long string of protests by parents and community leaders who question Chicago Public Schools' claims that it is pushing charters primarily for neighborhoods where classrooms are overcrowded.
But the opposition, which culminates with a scheduled overnight vigil downtown by the staunchly anti-charter Chicago Teachers Union, appears unlikely to derail the city's commitment to keep adding the privately run charter schools.
On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education is set to consider 17 new charter campuses. Chicago Public Schools officials won't make public their recommendations on the proposals until the board meeting, district spokesman Joel Hood said. Earlier, 22 new charter proposals were submitted, but charter operators withdrew some of them.
Of the district's 658 schools, 130 are charters, and district officials have laid out plans for 60 new charters to open from 2012 to 2017. The charter schools on Wednesday's agenda would open over the next two years and would be in addition to 10 new charters already approved for the next school year.
For many critics, the growth of charters flies in the face of the district's decision last year to close nearly four dozen neighborhood schools because of underenrollment. The cash-strapped district also cut about $168 million from individual school budgets.
On Monday, a coalition of anti-charter community groups called Communities United for Quality Education protested outside the site of a new charter school proposed by the Noble Network of Charter Schools, a favorite of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's that operates 14 high schools across the city.
The proposed school is across the street from Prosser High School on the Northwest Side, and protesters fear the Noble campus would lead to an enrollment decline at the district-run school.
Organizers contend that most of the charter proposals on the table are not aimed at communities where neighborhood schools are overcrowded.
"This is just another indication that the mayor and nonelected school board have an aggressive agenda for charter expansion to a point that CPS will create rationales like overcrowding relief that they will then ignore a few months later," said Demian Kogan of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council. "It's clear they just threw out a rationale that they didn't care to follow."
Kogan's group did a cost analysis that indicates district start-up costs for 17 charter schools would be $21 million next year.
Among the charter operators whose proposals are up Wednesday is Curtis-Sharif STEM Academy, a new group that is asking for four elementary schools that will focus on a Singapore-based math curriculum.
Concept Schools wants to open two new campuses, including one in the Chatham neighborhood that is part of mayoral ally the Rev. Charles Jenkins' plan to redevelop the old Johnson Products Co. site on 85th Street.
The district, which is putting $4 million from surplus tax increment financing district funds toward charters, can be overruled on its charter decisions through a state appeals process. Concept's proposal last year was rejected by CPS, but the operator subsequently got authority to open two new campuses from the little-known Illinois State Charter School Commission.
The process for the latest round of charter proposals began in the fall. Sensitive to concerns by communities facing school closings largely on the South and West sides, the district said it would consider new charters in neighborhoods where school overcrowding is a problem on the Northwest Side and in Southwest Side communities near Midway Airport.
Even the charter community raised concerns about that approach at the time, saying it was not clear how successful charters would be in alleviating overcrowding, especially since operators would have to find their own facilities in those neighborhoods.
Only five of the 17 proposals are in "priority communities" as designated by the district based on classroom overcrowding. Neighborhood advisory councils created to spur conversation about charters in those communities met with mixed results — two of the councils rejected charter proposals and a third council approved two charter proposals, but only by a narrow margin.
Eight other campuses are outside priority communities. District officials say though they are required to look at all the proposals regardless of whether they fall into the areas they've deemed as a priority.
"We can establish priority areas, but we can't ignore proposals outside of it," Hood said.
Several charter operators have yet to find locations for their proposed schools. They will have to go back to the board once they have secured sites.