The drama got into full swing even before the Chicago Public Schools board meeting began this morning.

Charter school supporters lined the four-block radius of CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. as parents wearing superhero costumes--Superman and the Incredible Hulk--gave the pre-meeting rallies a circus-like atmosphere. More than 800 charter advocates were bused in, and some had to be sent to the state of Illinois building to stage their protest there.

The Chicago Teachers Union began the events with a press conference. Parents holding signs such as "Don't Privatize Our Schools" shouted "Enough is Enough."

"We have a system that needs careful scrutiny," said CTU president Karen Lewis.

Charter critics argue that charters, which get government funding per pupil, take away resources from traditional neighborhood schools. After CPS officials tabled several charter proposals in December, the district planned to consider a scaled-down version of new charter proposals on Wednesday.

For both sides, the meeting has become an opportunity to push through or block additional charters.

During the union's press conference, parents pointed out a need for a neighborhood school in Austin and more resources for traditional schools, especially the 164 that don’t have libraries.

"If the board of education wants to continue on this track of privatizing our public schools, that's the wrong track," said Ald. Rick Munoz, who said his community had to stage a 19-day hunger strike to pressure the district to build a public school in his community.

Charter advocates, many of them wearing yellow scarves, came next, carrying 12,000 lottery balls to represent the number of students on charter waiting lists. Charter students get chosen by lottery in in-demand schools.

Juan Rangel, president of United Neighborhood Organization, or UNO, criticized the teachers union for taking students out of the classroom and bringing them to the board meeting.

"That's part of the problem," he said.

Rangel and other charter proponents called for the board of education to approve all the charter proposals Wednesday.

Charter supporters waved their own signs reading "no more waiting" and "we want change."
Atiyah Colbert, parent of a child at Learn Charter School on the south side, said it's time for school officials to listen to parents demanding more options and to approve measures before the board.

Turning to the parent in the Superman costume, Colbert said, "Superman, we love you, but there's no more 'waiting for Superman' allowed at this point. We need more options for parents."

The Renaissance Schools Fund, a nonprofit group that raises money for charter schools in Chicago, also released results from a poll it commissioned that shows 70 percent of city residents and three in four CPS parents want more school choices. The phone survey, conducted in November by Richard Day Research, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points for the general population, 6 percentage points for CPS parents and 7 percent for charter parents.

It also showed that 61 percent of CPS parents have considered an alternative for their child, yet 66 percent of charter school parents are satisfied with the quality of education their child receives. In comparison, 37 percent of CPs parents are very satisfied with their child’s education. And 78 percent of charter parents think their child’s education is improving, compared to 47 percent of CPS parents.

Union officials cited their own statistics: that 1 in 11 students left charter schools last school year, and that 5 in 6 charters perform no better than traditional public schools.

The charter school debate has always been contentious, with critics complaining they take public funding away from neighborhood schools, forcing many to close. The rhetoric has grown louder in recent weeks after the departure of former schools CEO Ron Huberman and the announcement that Terry Mazany, who sits on the Renaissance Schools Fund's board, would become interim schools chief until a new mayor takes office in May.

Union members and residents opposed to charters turned up en masse at the Dec. 15 board meeting, and were so vocal in their criticism that Mazany decided to table the charter proposals for further review. Charter advocates argue that the demand is overwhelming.

The proposals under consideration include charters for Legal Preparatory Charter Academy, which plans to stress skills used in the legal profession for high school students, and Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which runs a contract elementary school in the Pullman neighborhood with an African-centered curriculum.

UNO, the owner of a network of nine schools, hopes to open three new elementary schools and expand an existing middle school in Gage Park to become a high school.

Chicago International Charter Schools, the largest charter network with 14 city campuses, had initially hoped for three new locations but was forced to propose only one for now.

Noble Network of Charter Schools, which operates several of the highest-performing nonselective-enrollment high schools in the city, wishes to increase enrollment at three charter campuses and expand into middle school grades at a fourth campus.

Another school that has been proposed, Montessori School of Englewood, will not be voted on Wednesday but is still under consideration.
 
nahmed@tribune.com