Charter Schools on the Chopping Block in Bogotá


EspañolA recent move by the Bogotá city council has placed 17 of the city’s 25 charter high schools at risk of closing down. On September 6, the council’s finance committee voted against appropriating US$85.9 million to the schools for the 2015-2017 school years.

In 1999, the city developed a funding model for the construction and administration of 25 high schools in low-income neighborhoods. While funding for the schools comes from the government, they are managed privately, much like charter schools in the United States.

Saber 11 test results show that the public-private schools scored better than district schools in 2013.
Saber 11 test results show that the charter schools scored better than district schools in 2013. (Daniel Raisbeck)
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The city council’s decision raised enough outcry from the community that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has come out in favor of the privately administered schools, and asked the city council to reverse its decision.

For Councilman Fernando López, the system has structural flaws: “When the funding program for these high schools was initiated, it was said the process would not last a long time. It was also said that it would not mean the privatization of education, because the public institutions would still exist. [Schools] would simply now be forced to compete and provide better services.”

“The program has two decades worth of evidence that district schools have not improved their performance, despite competition from the charter schools.”

Councilman Álvaro Argote said the program should be terminated, and the schools should be returned to public administration.

On Thursday, the Bogotá City Council will meet with Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo to reconsider the closure proposal in light of President Santos’s insistence that the issue be resolved before the majority of the schools’ contracts expire in December.

“The charter schools are very high performing, we cannot accept that they be eliminated. The Bogotá city council, however, rejected the mayor’s [Gustavo Petro] funding proposal,” Santos said.

The president instructed Minister of Education Gina Parody to begin negotiations with the political parties represented on the city council. Santos aims to revive the issue and avoid a political crisis between the council and Mayor Petro, which would spell the end of the charter-school model.

“I am going to ask the minister of Education to speak with party leaders in the city council to present the project again, because we have to approve the funding for these schools,” said the president.

Parents Defend the Right to Choose

Charter school supporters filed a class-action law suit against Bogotá’s secretary of Education and Mayor Gustavo Petro, demanding the renewal of all schools under the program.

Charter school supporters filed a lawsuit against Mayor Petro, demanding the continuation of the current system. (Radio Rumbo)

The spokesperson for the charter schools’ parents association, Daniel Raisbeck, said the purpose of the lawsuit is to demand quality public education, and that this alternative system benefits 40,000 students from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital.

Raisbeck has worked with parents over the last year to compose a strategy to save the schools. He decided to take the matter to court, because he and the parents did not see any other way.

“It is an issue that has been completely politicized with the pressure from the teachers union, which has opposed the charter-school model and doesn’t care about school quality. This is why we decided to go to court.”

“The lawsuit is our last hope; we are asking for seven to eight years [in contract extensions] for the high schools,” he said.

The plaintiffs are reportedly still waiting for the case to be accepted by the court.

Daniel aseguró deben ser los padres los que elijan qué sistema prefieren. (Daniel)
Daniel Reisbeck says parents should be able to choose the system they prefer. (Daniel Raisbeck)

Raisbeck said the schools have demonstrated a track record of high performance that should prevent their closure: “Given the success and outstanding results of this model, it should be expanded, not eliminated, as the secretary and the mayor want.”

Regarding the quality of education being provided in the schools, he said, “If you do the comparison, 88 percent of the charter schools are performing at a high or superior level, while more than half of the district schools are performing at average or below average.”

“At this moment the future of the 25 high schools is uncertain, which is obviously worrisome for parents and students. There has been talk that the city will extend the schools’ contract for another year, but this is not enough, because we are talking about schools that have to plan for the long term, or at least the medium term. They can’t beg the secretary to renew the contract every year.”

“We hope that public opinion continues to force politicians and bureaucrats to realize their job is to serve the people, not protect their own interests at the expense of the taxpayer, and enforce failed models against the will of the people and the community.”

Opposition Voices Denounce Overcrowding

William Agudelo, president of the District Association of Educators (ADE) opposes the extension of public-private licenses, and is particularly concerned about the number of students in classrooms: “More than eight high schools are overpopulated. There are between 40 and 50 students in each class.”

We reject improper government intervention into the decision of the free and sovereign council of Bogotá not to extend the charter schools.

Agudelo also said the ADE will continue to work to improve education, and that he is happy with the idea of returning the high schools to public administration: “The schools will not be managed by the Colsubsidio [a private organization affiliated with the social security system], the University of the Andes, the Family Compensation Fund (CAFAM), nor the Modern Gym [a private high school], but by the secretary of Education, as it should be.”

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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