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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
Behind every charter school there’s a good idea

President Don M. Randel explains why the University runs a charter school for the Chicago Public Schools—and will open more.
Since 1998 the University of Chicago has operated a charter school in the North Kenwood–Oakland neighborhood. We will soon operate a second in a neighborhood slightly farther north, and it is likely that we will operate as many as five more charter schools within the next few years. Why is that?

IMAGE:  Illustration by Mark Summers
Illustration by
Mark Summers

It is not because we have an institutional position on charter schools as the solution to the nation’s public-education problems or because we have a position on vouchers and other forms of what is often described as introducing competition into the world of schools. It is instead because we have ideas, born of faculty research, that can improve the ability of children in some of the nation’s worst schools to read and learn. These ideas could be put into practice in schools of any kind and could begin to lift the lives of children out of the slavery of ignorance to which they might otherwise be condemned.

The North Kenwood–Oakland Charter School, operated by the University’s Center for Urban School Improvement, is a public school and operates with the funds available per pupil in the Chicago Public Schools. Admission is by lottery and so does not result in skimming the brightest or most advantaged children from the population. Nearly 100 percent of its children are African American, and well over half live below the poverty line and qualify for the federally supported school-meals program. And they are learning to read at or above national averages.

Such results mean that good ideas, consistently applied, can teach the nation’s most disadvantaged children to read and thus to learn what is necessary to live a decent life and climb out of poverty. To be sure, the University aims to make a difference in the lives of these particular children. But our aim is also to demonstrate the power of our ideas and to encourage their adoption by schools of all kinds. Our greatest contributions to biomedicine will not exceed this work in importance.

Unfortunately this account, as encouraging as it seems, makes the underlying situation sound simpler than it really is. I have said that these children are admitted to our charter school by lottery: each has an adult who cares enough about them to enter them in the lottery. Not every child in America has such an adult. Ultimately it will not be possible to fix schools if we cannot fix families or make good a substantial part of the deficit where there is no functional family.

Both the schools and the public-housing agencies need to provide the social services that can help ensure that it is not al-ready too late for many children by the time they reach school age. Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA) brings to this problem precisely the kinds of research-driven ideas that characterize the University’s work in every quarter. We are sending out SSA graduates armed with the ideas (and, yes, the commitment) that it takes to make a difference in what have often seemed intractable circumstances.

The Center for Urban School Improvement and the School of Social Service Administration represent the best of a tradition going back to the University’s founding—a tradition of applying the best thinking to the hardest problems and then contributing the fruits of that thinking to bettering the lives of real people. It might be objected that this all sounds too “applied,” whereas the University’s research, properly so-called, ought to be “pure.” But the distinction, on inspection, collapses in most cases. This is as true in the physical and biological sciences as in the social sciences and even the humanities (about which more on another occasion).

Research about any aspect of human life inevitably opens the possibility of doing something with the results. And one cannot not choose what to do, for doing nothing is in fact a choice. Having ideas with the power to improve the lives of others imposes a certain responsibility. We need only remember that our responsibility does not entail a right to impose our ideas at the expense of the rights of others. Perhaps it is as simple as this: knowing on the basis of hard thinking how one might improve the lives of children, how could one not want to?


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