Chicago Plans to Replicate Charter Schools

Published October 1, 2004

Although Illinois state law allows Chicago to issue no more than 30 charter school licenses, Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan plans to have more than 50 charter schools operating in Chicago by 2010 … without having to ask the legislature to lift the 30-license cap. Duncan will create the extra charter schools using a feature of the city’s 15 original charters that allows license holders to operate multiple school sites under a single charter.

“We know that [raising the cap] would be difficult and so that’s not part of our plans,” Duncan told a group of education entrepreneurs at EDVentures 2004, the annual conference of the Education Industry Association, held August 4-6 at Northwestern University’s Evanston, Illinois campus.

“We will look to ask people–the players who have already done a good job–to replicate their model,” he explained. “So rather than running one school, people would be running three, four, five schools. We have one great charter school that wants to run eight schools over the next six years.”

Duncan was addressing the implementation of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 school reform plan as part of a panel discussion on “Successful Public-Private Partnerships in K-12.”

Chicago’s Renaissance plan calls for opening 100 new schools over the next six years, split roughly one-third each between charter schools, contract schools, and small schools run by Chicago Public Schools. (See “Competition and Partnerships Are Keys to Chicago Renaissance Plan.”)

“I’m a big, big believer in choice, I’m a big believer in competition,” said Duncan, adding that students are better served when parents and school communities are given a wide variety of high-quality options and then letting the marketplace push each option to get better.

Duncan noted the public schools in Chicago were once known as the worst in the country. However, since Mayor Richard M. Daley took over the schools almost 10 years ago, he said, the district has improved significantly–with still a long way to go–and it is now often cited as a model of urban school reform. Part of the success of that model is the district’s engagement in public-private educational partnerships.

“We’re really trying to push the idea of innovation, we’re really trying to push the idea of entrepreneurship, and how we can bring in the best and brightest players from around the country to help us improve and provide great education to students in every neighborhood in Chicago,” said Duncan.

“Anyone who can bring an idea that helps us improve, anyone who can bring an idea that will help our students learn, we’d be silly not to take it,” said Duncan.

The need for school districts to be open to new ideas was echoed by another panelist, H. Douglas Williams, superintendent of Perry Township Schools in Marion County, Indiana, on the south side of Indianapolis. The district has partnered with Edison Schools in the opening of two new schools to alleviate overcrowding in a rapidly growing district.

Since the existing schools were populated through school choice, the district wanted two new schools that would offer enhanced opportunities to parents. Edison provided that with its longer school day, advanced technology, and foreign language options.

Another motivation in partnering with Edison was to learn from the for-profit company. As a result, the district has adopted Edison’s benchmark assessment approach and Edison’s model for professional development, with teacher-leaders and teacher-coaches.

According to Williams, the partnership with Edison has been everything the district hoped for. Achievement at the two new Edison schools is high, the schools are well-accepted by the community, and both have waiting lists.

“We need to partner with people who can help us do better, and Edison has clearly been that for us,” said Williams.

Other panelists were Nancy Lavelle, of Total Education Solutions, and Jeff Cohen of Catapult Learning, the institutional arm of the Sylvan group.

Paul H. Seibert ([email protected]) is director of Charter Consultants, Inc., a division of The Governor French Academy, Inc., of Belleville, Illinois. George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.