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Chicago charter schools are doing great things. They deserve to be funded equitably.

Chicago Tribune

Monday, September 11, 2023  |  Article  |  Jemia cunningham-Elder

Amid the contentious relationship between traditional public schools and charter public schools in Chicago, new research from the University of Arkansas uncovers two important truths: Chicago charter schools, on average, serve a higher proportion of students experiencing poverty than district-run schools, and yet charter students receive $8,633 less in annual funding for their education. If that doesn’t strike you as problematic, let me explain a bit more about what’s at stake.

Chicago students are hurting, and that started long before the pandemic. On top of the devastating social-emotional and academic effects of COVID-19, far too many Chicago children experience poverty, trauma and gun violence. That exposure means that our students often need more support, more resources and more staff in their schools — all of which cost more money, not less. And when students are grappling with these kinds of challenges, they’re also often struggling to perform academically. Yet there is little acknowledgment that we are attempting to accelerate learning for the highest-need children, with fewer resources to back it up.

Layer on top of that our city’s declining student enrollment, along with the end of pandemic relief funding, and it’s clear that Chicago schools are looking down the barrel of having increasingly fewer dollars to do a job that is increasingly more difficult, especially for those students who most need our support.

These challenges exist whether we are talking about a traditional school in Chicago or a public charter school. In fact, given data from the 2019-20 school year that shows Chicago Public Schools serves a student population that is 78.8% low-income while charters serve 88.4% low-income students — a difference of nearly 10% — it becomes increasingly clear that the challenge is greater for many of our city’s charter schools.

From my own experience leading North Lawndale College Prep, or NLCP, a public charter school serving 700 students on the West Side, I can tell you that the vast majority of our students are experiencing significant challenges outside school such as hunger, homelessness, violence and loss. We have been a staple in the North Lawndale community for 25 years, and we’ve been forced to get creative with limited resources.At NLCP, we have spent decades embedding ourselves in the community, building partnerships and identifying resources to support our students as they face many barriers. Despite the inequities in our funding, we run programs that spread peace throughout the neighborhood, we offer housing to students in need, and we help students not only to graduate from high school but to obtain college degrees at 3.5 times the rate of those in the surrounding North Lawndale neighborhood. We even bring those graduates back to our school and other local organizations in North Lawndale to work here, transforming our community for the better. We understand what it takes to serve North Lawndale’s children well, and we’ve remained unwavering in our commitment. And we’ve done that without equitable funding.

On top of all of that, securing the resources necessary to do this work results in other challenges. Like most charter schools in Chicago, we have had no choice but to raise philanthropic dollars to fill critical gaps created by this funding inequity. But that is often turned into an attack against us, saying that public charter schools are bankrolled by private investors. That is ridiculous. Trust me — any school leader will tell you that they would love nothing more than to be able to operate our schools without fundraising. But it’s just not an option.

I want to be clear that this is not about stoking the flames of the already volatile debate around public charter schools in our city. This is about the challenge we collectively face as educators in Chicago — the challenge of serving a city full of students, the majority of whom walk into our classrooms carrying the additional burdens of trauma and poverty, which we know require extra resources. Every single one of our children deserves everything we have to give. And yet, some of them get substantially less than that simply because of the school they choose to attend.

Mayor Brandon Johnson has made it a priority to rethink how we fund our schools and our students, and I’m excited about that potential. I know that at the heart of the matter, all of our city leaders believe that every single child in Chicago is talented and resilient and has limitless potential. We want all children to succeed. When we say all children in Chicago, that has to truly mean all children, and I hope that those beliefs can be what unite us as we move forward.

It is time that our funding reflects our values. I know it can be done, and I know that by doing so, we will change the face of Chicago. In another 25 years, we will all be proud of the next generation of leaders we have raised through our schools.

Jemia Cunningham-Elder is CEO of North Lawndale College Prep.