Charter Pulse

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ILLINOIS: Retain panel for charter schools

lindaA movement is afoot to kill a state commission that hears appeals from groups that want to open charter schools but are denied by their local school districts.

An Illinois House committee this week approved a bill to abolish the State Charter School Commission and, in a rare moment of cooperation, the heads of the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago school board recently pledged to join hands to rid Illinois of the commission.

Given the hostility toward charters in Chicago and around the country, which are publicly funded but privately operated, it’s a wonder this commission, not even three years old, has made it this far.

But killing it would be a mistake, even if we strongly support changing it to better protect the Chicago school system — which has been especially welcoming to charter schools — from having charters forced on it by an outside agency.

We’ll lay out that proposed change below, but first the basics:

In a state that by law allows for charter schools, the charter commission serves a crucial function in hearing appeals from charters denied at the local level. Denials happen regularly, often because many school districts don’t want their public dollars (including state dollars) siphoned from traditional schools to charters. This knee-jerk reaction means quality charters — schools that may be better than many of the weak schools we have in Illinois — don’t even get a fair hearing. The commission also oversees the charters it ultimately approves, which since 2011 has been only two of 38 appeals.

Even for strong supporters of local control, charter applicants — and the kids they may one day serve — deserve a fair shake. And without an appeals body, a denied applicant could take a school district to court, a highly expensive and ineffective way to decide local school policy.

Before the commission was created, the State Board of Education handled appeals, but it lacked the staff, expertise and budget to do the job. After a year of study, a task force in 2010 recommended the commission, and the Legislature voted to approve it.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia would abolish the commission and return the appeal authority to ISBE. But four years later, ISBE’s budget and staffing problems are even worse. Why saddle that agency with another task it can’t effectively manage?

There are, however, real problems with the commission that need to be fixed.

The most pressing concern is Chicago, which unlike most districts has rolled out the welcome mat to charters. Despite that, the commission in 2013 approved two charters that had been denied locally, a decision that frustrated many here, including School Board President David Vitale. The decision also came as CPS grappled with major budget cuts and as it contemplated closing 50 under-enrolled schools.

The law does not require the commission to take CPS’ long history of approving charters into account. It should.

The bar for overturning a CPS decision (or any district that establishes a good record of accepting charter schools) should be raised. Colorado is a model Illinois should consider. In Colorado, all charter decisions are local unless the state concludes that a district isn’t adequately implementing the state charter law. If that’s the case, charter applicants in that district can apply directly to a state commission.

We also have concerns about how the commission is funded, though this is tricky to solve. The state provides no money directly to the commission, leaving it reliant now on fees from the charters it oversees. This creates at least an appearance of a conflict of interest. Direct state funding would be preferred, though that’s tough given the state’s fiscal problems; the commission would be forced to fight for its budget every year.

Chapa LaVia tells us she’s open to negotiations on her bill, which is good news. The bill as it stands now is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to undercut charter schools in Illinois.

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2014 by in Charter Schools, Illinois, States.

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