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Charters, Renaissance 2010, and accountability

With a new round of school closings and “turnarounds” under Renaissance 2010 just announced – and charges last week of student abuse as well as manipulation of grades and attendance records at one charter school – a recent report highlights the failure of charter and ‘new’ schools to meet legal requirements for public accountability.

And while charter school supporters tout long waiting lists as the greatest evidence of their success, the report shows a significant proportion of Chicago’s charter schools are actually struggling with declining enrollments and facing difficulty recruiting students.

Parents United for Responsible Education submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking copies of bylaws and minutes as well as lists of governing board members to Renaissance 2010 schools in April. Only one reponded with the requested materials within the seven-day period mandated by the state’s FOI law.

Following a subsequent request which included letters from the Illinois Attorney General informing the schools that they are required to respond, only 18 — one third of 57 charter networks, contract schools and other Renaissance 2010 schools contacted — responded with the requested documents.

ASPIRA Charter School, where misconduct charges emerged last week, was among 15 charter schools that failed to respond.

PURE will pursue its request for the documents, and the Attorney General’s office is investigating the schools’ failure to follow the law, Julie Woestehoff of PURE said.

In addition to widespread FOIA violations, most of the bylaws submitted by responding schools failed to meet the requirements of the Open Meetings Act, according to the report.

Lists of governing board members that were submitted showed the schools weren’t meeting legal requirements for parent involvement in governance, according to the report. Most charter schools that responded reported no parent representatives.

Minutes that were submitted showed “significant accountability issues regarding testing [and] discipline,” problems with teacher attrition, and perhaps most significantly, problems with student retention, low enrollment, and “push-outs.”

“Many of the responding schools do not have waiting lists,” according to the report. “Some struggle to keep up their enrollment.”

“So much information we get from CPS and the media regarding Renaissance 2010 has turned out to be false,” the report says.

“Because we found the public accountability in Renaissance 2010 schools to be highly questionable — and because local school councils have provided Chicago with nearly twenty years of effective public school accountability — we concluded that all CPS schools, including any Renaissance 2010 schools, should have the proven accountability system of elected, parent-majority LSCs,” Woestehoff said.

Last month a PURE lawsuit, which charges that CPS has evaded requirements in state law for LSCs in its small and alternative schools, was reinstated. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall reportedly expressed frustration over the inability of CPS lawyers to provide legal justification for disbanding LSCs in Renaissance 2010 schools.

CPS is set to announce a dramatic expansion of school closings and “turnaround” schools, which feature school-wide teacher dismissals, under Renaissance 2010 next month.

On Saturday Chicago teachers and parents will meet at Malcolm X College to discuss “turnaround” schools, charters and privatization, in a forum organized by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, which has joined calls by teachers and by parent and community groups for a moratorium on school closings and “turnarounds.”

[UPDATED 1-12-09]

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