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The proliferation of charter schools, particularly in areas of declining enrollment and in proximity to schools that have closed, is adding financial stress to Chicago’s financially strapped public school system, a new report co-authored by a Roosevelt University professor shows.

Released by Roosevelt Associate Professor of Sociology Stephanie Farmer on Tuesday, March 28, the report titled “Closed by Choice: The Spatial Relationship between Charter School Expansion, School Closures and Fiscal Stress in Chicago Public Schools” tracks 108 charter schools opened between 2000 and 2015 – a time when CPS was closing schools, cutting resources and reducing staff. 

A research team led by Farmer found that the majority of charter schools opened during that period were largely in areas where the population of school-aged children was in decline and were located in close vicinity to shuttered schools.

“We were surprised to discover how much CPS has saturated charter schools in neighborhoods with declining school-age populations. We believe this decision is a strong contributing factor to the current strain on CPS’ finances,” said Farmer, who co-authored the report with sociology PhD candidates Ashley Baber from Loyola University and Chris Poulos from the University of Illinois at Chicago on behalf of the Project for Middle Class Renewal.

“The proliferation of charter schools in Chicago has forced CPS to stretch its resources across a surplus of schools in low-demand markets,” Farmer said. “CPS now has substantial off-the-books debt due to the public’s responsibility to finance all of these additional privatized charter schools.”

Among findings:

  • 62 percent of new charter schools were opened from 2000-15 in areas that had school-aged population losses of 25 percent or more.
  • 71 percent of new charter schools opened between 2000-12 were located within 1.5 miles of the 49 public schools that closed due to low enrollment in 2013.
  • 20 new charter schools located within a 1.5-mile walking radius of a school closed for low enrollment have opened since 2013.
  • Less than a third of all CPS charter schools filed an audit with the Illinois State Board of Education in 2015.
  • The 27 percent of charters that filed an audit reported a combined outstanding debt of $227 million, which is independent of CPS’ overall $6 billion debt, and which will ultimately be the responsibility of taxpayers.

“The lack of rational planning and the haphazard manner in which charter school proliferation and saturation in depopulating Chicago neighborhoods has taken place undoubtedly has contributed to Chicago Public Schools’ fiscal problems,” said Farmer.

The report recommends more accountability and oversight mechanisms over Chicago’s charter school system. Among recommendations, city and state governments should:

  • Impose a moratorium on charter school expansion.
  • Require charter schools to publish their budgets and require CPS to include the total charter school debt paid by public revenues in its annual financial report.
  • Abolish the Illinois Charter School Commission, which overrides decisions made by the Chicago Board of Education when awarding charter contracts.

For more information or for a copy of the new report, contact Roosevelt professor Stephanie Farmer at sfarmer@roosevelt.edu or 312-341-3746. 

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