PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday November 14th, 2013, 6:57pm

Proposed State Legislation Looks To Abolish Illinois Charter School Commission

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) recently introduced a bill that would revoke the authorizing power of the Illinois State Charter School Commission. Progress Illinois takes a look at the commission as well as Chapa LaVia's new proposal.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) wants to take away the Illinois State Charter School Commission’s power to overrule local school boards if they reject proposals from charter firms trying to set up new schools in their districts.

On November 7, Chapa LaVia introduced a bill in the state House, HB 3754, that would essentially do away with the independent charter authorizer by repealing provisions involving the commission from Illinois’ Charter Schools Law of the School Code and the State Finance Act.

The state legislature created the independent commission, which is responsible for authorizing high-quality charter schools in the state, back in 2011. The commission, which is comprised of nine members nominated by Gov. Pat Quinn and appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), is also tasked with considering new charter school appeals and charter application renewals.   

ISBE authorized charter schools prior to Illinois’ Charter School Quality Act, SB 79, the legislation that created the charter commission. State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and former state Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood), now the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, sponsored that measure in their respective chambers.

The charter-authorizing responsibility would go back to the ISBE under Chapa LaVia's proposed bill. No other House lawmakers have signed on to the measure thus far, but Chapa LaVia said state Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley) is set to be added as a co-sponsor soon.

Chapa LaVia said she wants to remove the commission altogether because it was created way too prematurely.

The representative said she is introducing the bill now to start a discussion, "because if I don't do something drastic here, then people are not going to understand the severity of what's going on in the state if we don't do what we need to do now with these entities called charter schools."

"I don't think people in my world, the General Assembly world, understand to the fullest what a charter school is today," Chapa LaVia continued. "Everybody thinks that charter schools are doing great, and that's not the true reflection of what exactly is happening."

Proponents of charters say the schools, which are independently run but receive public money and often raise private funds through foundations and philanthropists, provide families with alternative school choices.

But charter opponents say they've been hijacked by corporate interests. Some education activists have said the charter school commission's main objective is to override charter denials in an effort to expand privatized education in Illinois.

John Laesch of Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, a suburban group that’s been pushing back against the commission, applauded the new bill, saying “a lot of people feel that their school board should be under local control” because school board members are “really competent people” and “real, true public servants.”

School board members “really care about the community and are putting these charter schools to their tests ... and protecting their district and protecting the taxpayers,” Laesch said,  adding that the charter commission’s override power goes against the “Democratic system of government.”

Under current state law, charter companies have 30 days to appeal to the commission when a school board votes down a firm’s application for a new charter school. The independent charter governing body can then reverse a school board’s denial if the charter proposal follows state law and is “in the best interests of the students the charter school is designed to serve.”

Interesting to note, Illinois’ Charter Quality School Act resembles a model bill backed by the pro-charter American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) titled the “Charter School Growth with Quality Act.” ALEC is a conservative association made up of more than 2,000 state legislators, mostly Republicans, and hundreds of corporate members who craft legislation called “model bills" that participating lawmakers later introduce in statehouses across the country. (Read Progress Illinois’ full report on ALEC, as well as some of its model bills introduced in states this year, here).

The state charter commission received 29 new charter school appeals from November 1, 2011, when the independent entity took effect, through June 30, 2013, according to a list of frequently asked questions about the commission posted on ISBE’s website in July.

Just two out of those 29 appeals were granted back in March, paving the way for two new K-12 Concept Schools to open in Chicago in September. Also in March, the commission denied one appeal for a proposed Pathways in Education charter school in Chicago.

"It's kind of interesting that the mayor of Chicago denies (charters) and then (the commission) can supersede somebody with that much authority," Chapa LaVia noted. "If they can do it to the mayor, they can do it to anybody."

According to the commission, the remaining 26 recent appeals were withdrawn, either prior to or after the charter governing body’s interview process.

In June, the commission voted to accept the withdrawal of 18 appeals by Virtual Learning Solutions, which wanted to partner with online curriculum company K12 Inc. to form the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley in 18 suburban school districts. (Read Progress Illinois' report about that proposal here).

All eighteen school boards rejected the applications for the online charters, and Virtual Learning Solutions filed appeals with the charter commission in May. The commission, however, was poised to deny the appeals before they were withdrawn in June due to a one-year state moratorium on new virtual charter schools that took effect this April. Chapa LaVia also sponsored that moratorium measure, HB 494, and the governor signed it into law May 24. 

“I think there’s still a great amount of concern over the [Virtual Learning Solutions and] K12 Inc. application, how that came through,” Laesch explained. “If you look at how much money the school districts spent, it’s well over $300,000 in legal defense for K12 Inc.”

ISBE reportedly approved three charter school appeals within a 15-year period when it had authorizing responsibility, Charter School Commission Chairman Greg Richmond, also the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told the Daily Herald in a June interview.

Laesch explained that groups in favor of an independent charter authorizer used ISBE’s lack of reversed appeals as justification for bringing in a new state charter commission.

Additionally, the commission currently serves as an authorizer for four schools, Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, Southland College Prep Charter High School in Richton Park and the two Chicago Concept Schools that opened in September, including Horizon Science Academy Charter School-McKinley Park and Horizon Science Academy Charter School-North Austin. As an authorizer, the commission “monitors the performance and legal compliance of charter schools authorized by the commission and determines if each school merits renewal, nonrenewal, or revocation.”

Under current state law, the commission is allowed to charge each charter school it authorizes a fee of up to 3 percent of the school’s revenue in order to help cover its administrative responsibilities.

The commission has also raised some eyebrows over its ability to “receive and expend gifts, grants, and donations of any kind from any public or private entity” to help carry out its duties under the law.

“They get money from private companies [like] the Gates Foundation ... and there is another anonymous contributor on their budget in the amount of $75,000,” Laesch noted. “So what you’ve got is a conflict of interest of the money. You’ve got people who can essentially fund this charter commission, and then later go to the commission and say, ‘We want you to give us a charter school.’”

Chapa LaVia said they way in which the commission receives its funding is a "right in your face conflict of interest."

"That's really bad," she stressed. "Not only are they existing based on who they approve or don't approve, also they receive money from foundations out there that all they'd like to do is see charter schools exist and traditional schools go away ... That's serious stuff."

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) recently told an audience at an Oak Park education forum that the independent authorizer has a “hidden agenda” of expanding charter schools across Illinois. At the October education meeting, Lightford said she also plans to introduce a measure in the Senate that would end the commission’s overrule authority and hand it back to ISBE. Lightford, vice-chair of the Senate's education committee, could not be reached for comment for this story by deadline.

Although only one other House lawmaker has agreed to sign on to Chapa LaVia’s bill thus far, Laesch said education organizers are optimistic that the idea of abolishing the charter commission will gain traction in Springfield.

“Senator Lightford is a heavyweight and considered a pretty strong voice for education issues in Springfield, and we know that Representative Chapa LaVia was able to navigate and get the one-year moratorium on the virtual charters passed last year, which is a significant accomplishment,” he said. “She was going up against [the] Illinois Policy Institute and the big money that’s been funding the charter commission drive here in the state of Illinois.”

The Illinois State Charter School Commission issued the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to our request for comment on the proposed bill:

The State Charter School Commission has been serving the people of Illinois well. Commissioners are volunteers, nominated by the governor and appointed by the State Board of Education. The original nine commissioners included two former school district superintendents, a representative of the Illinois Education Association, the retired CEO of Caterpillar, an aerospace engineer, and a non-profit community organization executive who was later elected to the State Senate.  More recent appointees include another former school district superintendent and a retired judge.

The Commission has been thorough, fair and careful in its consideration of school proposals, having approved only 2 schools in two years and the commission's professionalism has been complimented by both applicants and school districts. In addition to considering proposals for new schools, the commission has also been improving state charter school policies and authorization practices. The commission has established, for the first time, criteria for evaluating the performance of state authorized charter schools, is staffing a legislative task force on charter school funding and working on legislative recommendations for virtual charter schools.

The proposed measure has been referred to the Rules Committee. If HB 3754 is approved, it would take effect July 1, 2014.

Comments

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This is an excellent measure to undo a bit of ALEC-written legislation that undermines basic democratic values in Illinois. When you have an obscure, appointed board, with the power to overrule elected boards around the state, and this board is funded by a mechanism that fuels charter authorizations, you have a recipe for disaster. If this commission is allowed to stand, then we're going to see a future in which every private industry will have a working model for a procedure to end-run elected bodies and regulatory agencies.

This commission should have never been created; it's part and parcel of the ALEC agenda, which has found traction in the DOE's Race To The Top, which itself has metastasized into federal policy due to Congress's inability to act on anything, including the future of No Child Left Behind.

We need to draw the line against the appointed people supplanting and overruling elected people. Let's do it here in Illinois.

As long as I'm on a roll here, let me also say that between the registration and the captchas, it's harder to comment here on Progress Illinois than basically any other place of which I'm aware. Still, great article.

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