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Are charter schools the answer to – or one reason for – Chicago’s violence?

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Twenty-four students were fatally shot during the school year that ended June 15, four fewer than in the 2010-11 year. But the overall shooting toll — 319 — was the highest in four years and a nearly 22 percent increase from the previous school year.

The rise in shootings of CPS students compounds concerns over an alarming increase in the city’s homicide rate. Through June 17, homicides are up about 38 percent citywide this year compared with the same period in 2011, while shootings are up 12 percent. (Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2012)

Even the national media have taken notice of the disastrous upsurge in Chicago youth violence.

One woman thinks she has an answer.

Last week, New Schools for Chicago executive director Phyllis Lockett wrote this in a letter to the Sun-Times:

Another summer is under way, and yet again it has been far from peaceful. By all accounts, the coming months promise to hold just as much — if not more — violence. While headlines recount nightly shootings, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the communities enduring high levels of violence are the same communities where children have the most restricted access to quality schools.

Hopelessness is a root cause of violence. And one of the things quality schools do is inspire students to see their futures as bright. More importantly, quality schools provide real tools and skills to empower students. We can’t allow chronically failing schools to continue serving our kids, and then wonder why they cannot see a successful future to strive for.

As a city, our goal should be to offer students a viable alternative to the streets, and a quality education is an essential part of that equation. Charter schools are doing this, as evidenced by 80 percent of our kids graduating from high school. These students are heading to colleges like the University of Illinois, Dartmouth, Cornell and Yale. We cannot afford to maintain the status quo. We have to embrace new schools that help give our kids hope and the runway to college.

The city’s strategy to mitigate violence must include increasing the number of quality schools.

Charter school proponents are well-known for their overblown and under-evidenced claims, but Lockett’s demand that more charter schools “must” be part of the solution to violence is over the top even by that standard.

Problem 1 – Charter schools do not equate with quality

First of all, Lockett misleadingly uses the term “quality schools” interchangeably with “charter schools.” Evidence shows that in Chicago and across the nation, charter schools do not offer a more “quality” education than regular neighborhood schools.

She offers charter schools’ graduation rate as proof of their quality, but given the well-documented problems (here , here and here for example) with “missing” students in low-performing charter schools that trumpet their graduation and college-going rates, her argument is not convincing.

Problem 2 – Communities believe charter schools actually increase violence

A lot of the people most affected by charter school expansion would strongly disagree with Lockett’s notion that charter schools are an answer to youth violence. In fact, communities report strong feelings that charter schools, and the school closings that go hand in hand with their expansion, have actually contributed to increased violence.

The 2007 report, “Students as Collateral Damage” (Lipman and Person), includes interviews and first-person accounts of students and teachers from schools closed in the Mid-South region of Chicago during the first years of Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 program:

Teachers, staff, and students report that incoming students are traveling outside of their neighborhood, often crossing different gang boundary lines. As one parent stated, “We have a lot of issues with gang fights. This is the bottom line.” (p. 33)

Parents, teachers, administrators and students at receiving schools report increasing concerns about the rise in discipline and safety issues resulting from an influx of new students. Concerns centering on these issues are twofold: an increase in discipline and behavioral problems in receiving schools and classrooms, and an increase in violence in and around receiving schools. (p.31)

The report references local media statistical reports as well:

In March, April, and May 2006, a series of articles in both major Chicago newspapers highlighted the escalating violence in schools receiving displaced students. In some instances they reported that teachers were quitting out of fear, yet CPS officials vowed to continue the school closings. The Chicago school reform journal Catalyst also reported increase in violent incidents (Duffrin, 2006) in all receiving schools in the Midsouth. (p. 32)

Here’s another perspective from a Chicago Public Schools teacher’s blog published recently in Education Week:

Every change pushed by the corporate reform movement seems to do a greater disservice to my students than the last.

Charter schools are being hailed as ‘the answer’ and then they unapologetically push my students out. I have worked with kids who were counseled out of all of the major charter school providers in Chicago, even the highly publicized ones lauded by Arne Duncan, Mayor Emanuel, and President Obama. The charters are not serving my kids. My students are also getting more and more untrained novice teachers, like the corporate reform favorite Teach for America provides, and fewer experienced educators. Many of these young college grads know nothing about these students’ cultural backgrounds or extensive social-emotional needs. To add to all of that, my students are being labeled as “failures” by the standardized tests mandated by corporate reform’s signature piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind.

All I hear coming from the powers that be is to “fire more teachers,” “create more charters schools,” or “give more tests.” None of the remedies being peddled by the elites help my students AT ALL. They are the kids being left behind.

And here’s a blog post from the Chicago Justice Project called “Yes, Institutional Violence Does Exist and it Exacerbates Youth Violence,”which focuses on the replacement of Collins High School with three charter schools:

(I)f they choose to close a school and plan for it, they should at least try to plan to limit potential violence from gangs and racial conflicts….In 2007 Collins hosted its last class because earlier in the 2000s the Chicago Public School Board approved a plan to close Collins and turn the building into three charter schools. Now, white Chicago views this as the city making strides to increase the educational opportunities in an underserved community. Parents in North Lawndale knew better.

Problem 3 – Common sense and some research suggest that another $76 million spent on charter schools may simply buy us more violence

The newly-released CPS budget shows a frighteningly large deficit, a plan to completely empty out the reserve fund, and new spending of $76 million for existing and new charter schools. Is that a good investment?

Well, I can’t point to any large-scale studies or reports that tell us that replacement of neighborhood schools with charter schools increases youth violence. But here’s an interesting study that I stumbled on which offers an interesting piece to the argument: “Catholic Schools, Charter Schools, and Urban Neighborhoods,” by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett.

The report suggests that Catholic schools strengthen and stabilize a community better than charter schools. It looks at areas where Catholic schools have closed and charter schools have moved in, often in the same building and compares crime rates before and after:

(T)he presence of an open Catholic elementary school in a neighborhood is associated with a small, by statistically significant, decrease in the rate of crime. We do not observe a similar decrease for charter schools, although in a few years, regressions for individual crimes suggest a statistically significant link charter schools and elevated rates of aggravated assault and aggravated battery. To the extent we can note anything about the charter schools that have opened in closed Catholic school buildings, the direction of the coefficients is not encouraging (for in these seven cases, the crime rate seems to increase).(pp. 21-22)

(C)harter schools do not appear to serve the same social-capital generation function as their Catholic school counterparts- or if they do, the social capital does not translate into reduced crime rates. (p.27)

Catholic schools apparently anchor and stabilize struggling urban neighborhoods — and …charter schools do not…. (p. 32)

Admittedly, public schools are different from Catholic schools in many ways. But a stable public school and a stable Catholic school can both offer important, violence-reducing “social capital.”

Another relevant study is William Frischel’s “Why Voters Veto Vouchers: Public Schools and Community-Specific Social Capital.” Fischel explains the reluctance of voters to approve vouchers this way: “(N)o one loves the public schools but the people” (p. 4). He believes that local public schools allow parents to create social capital, to get to know each other and, when necessary, join together to get things done.

Why is “social capital” important for schools? Here’s what the Consortium on Chicago School Research says in Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools:

  • (I)t is the quality of relationships between staff and students and between staff and parents that most strongly defines safe schools.” (Executive summary)
  • Students feel safer… if they come from communities where the adults know the neighborhood children and work together to keep the community safe” (p. 22)….Schools are perceived as more safe the more that people work together and build trusting, collaborative relationships. (p. 33)
  • It is the gathering together of many students with low academic achievement and weak attachment to school that is most problematic for school safety” (p. 21)….Policies that cluster students into schools based on their achievement need to recognize these safety concerns for schools serving low-achieving students. (p. 47)

The “Collateral Damage” report offers a similar thought:

Teachers and staff also felt that there is no longer a strong sense of connection within their school community. They point out that incoming students from closing schools are not from the immediate school community and have no real connection to the school. This negatively affects students and creates tension and conflict within the school. These interviews corroborate a central theme we heard repeatedly in community hearings in other parts of the city – that the school is a center of stability in the community and to close it destabilizes the community (e.g., in relation to the closing of Grant, Howland, Bunche, Englewood High School, Collins High School). (p. 24)

Let’s go back to some of our friends from the Consortium, Drs. Bryk, Easton et al, who say in their important publication, “Organizing Schools for Improvement” (U of C Press, 2010), that “reconnecting local schools to the parents and community that they are intended to serve is central for reform” (p. 199).

One woman’s opinion? More community engagement in the schools, less violence, better education.

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