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Use Stimulus Funds to Expand Charter Schools

The Obama strategy is aggressive, yet even the president was likely surprised by his home state's commitment to charter schools.
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As stimulus funds begin to hit state coffers, and as states develop their own stimulus packages, the inevitable debate has begun as to where the money should be invested. Infrastructure? Green energy? Healthcare? Despite these important areas, investing in the education of our children remains the best strategy for strengthening our communities while fueling long-term economic recovery and growth.

Governments should devote stimulus funds to charter school expansion and encourage public private partnerships to ensure efficient use of the funds. Charter schools have illustrated the ability to improve the quality of education in the communities they serve. Yet, across the nation, these schools struggle to finance new construction or capital improvements.

The Illinois State Legislature, in a broadly supported bipartisan measure, just set the bar for innovative educational funding around the nation by appropriating approximately $150 million for charter school expansion. To put the amount in context, this appropriation nearly triples the $50 million stimulus dollars that the Obama administration allocated for charter schools nationally, illustrating the bold steps that Illinois Is taking to lead the country.

The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago's largest Hispanic community-based organization, was the recipient of $98 million of those funds, which is estimated to be the single largest charter school appropriation to any community-based organization in American history.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan realizes the importance of charter schools and has devoted much of his career to that mission. Indeed, the Obama Administration has even established a $5 billion fund to reward states and school districts that adopt innovative strategies and expand charter schools. The Obama strategy is aggressive, yet even the president was likely surprised by his home state's commitment to charter schools.

Through this funding strategy, Illinois is creating a new public/private partnership model for public school construction. This model will focus on school construction in urban school districts where dense populations and decaying infrastructure inhibit development. Such partnerships can be highly effective in building schools efficiently and relieving overcrowding more quickly.

Using UNO as an example in Chicago, we have established a track record of building schools for a fraction of the cost and almost four times as quickly as the public school system. UNO can build an elementary school in 12-18 months for $18 million dollars whereas a comparable school built by the Chicago Public Schools would take nearly four years and cost upwards of $32 million. This stark comparison shows how much can be saved and reinvested in the students through charter schools.

Over the past few months, Chicago parents came out in force to demand an end to overcrowding and a better educational environment for their children. The Illinois Legislature heard their pleas and responded with unanimous support for an appropriation that will become a new standard for innovative education funding nationwide.

It's time for state and federal leaders to follow this example and dedicate stimulus funds to charter schools so children everywhere can learn and grow into the leaders of tomorrow.

Juan Rangel is Chief Executive Officer of United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago's largest Hispanic community-based organization.

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