At an education forum in Oak Park Wednesday, State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) said she plans to introduce legislation to help stop the Illinois State Charter Commission's "hidden agenda" of expanding charter schools across the state.
The Illinois legislature set up this special charter governing body back in 2011. The commission has autonomy from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the power to override local school boards if they reject applications from charter companies looking to open schools in their communities. A number of education activists have blasted the commission, saying its sole purpose is to override these charter denials.
"This independent authorizer, they've hired a lobbyist that has a salary, and there's a hidden agenda," Lightford said at the forum, held at Oak Park's Percy Julian Middle School. "(School) funding would come away from you and go directly into this situation, and I think it's something we all should be very mindful of."
Lightford said she would introduce a bill at some point during next year's legislative session that would get rid of the commission's override powers and give charter authorizing responsibility back to ISBE.
Overall, Lightford said she expects a flurry of charter-related bills to be introduced during the upcoming legislative sessions looking to do things like raise the cap on the number of charters allowed either statewide or just in Chicago and other cities. She's anticipating the uptick in charter bills now that a memorandum of understanding attached to the Charter School Reform Act of 2009 expired at the end of June. The memorandum prohibited proposals to change the Charter Schools Law, other than legislation to establish an independent, state-level charter school authorizing entity, which turned out to be the Illinois State Charter Commission.
"There was a memorandum around that subject not to address the words charter and school in one phrase ... and that time is up," Lightford told more than 60 people at the meeting. "I would imagine that there will probably be a significant number, more than any of us care to possibly ascertain in general assembly, of charter school bills."
State Education Funding
State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and State Reps. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) and Camille Lilly (D-Chicago) also spoke at the forum.
Audience members told the lawmakers that they were concerned about Illinois ranking among the lowest when it comes to state education funding. Illinois has prorated the funds it provides ISBE to disperse among school districts since 2010. This year, school districts received 89 percent of the funding they would normally be entitled to under current law.
School districts also rely heavily on property taxes for funding, but those at the meeting said this leads to a great deal of funding inequality from district to district.
Ford said implementing a progressive state income tax in Illinois would be one of the best ways to bring in revenue as a means to help balance school district funding.
A progressive tax system applies higher rates to larger incomes and lower rates to smaller incomes. The state constitution currently restricts Illinois to a flat income tax, meaning all taxpayers are taxed at the same rate, 5 percent, despite how much they make. In order to amend the state constitution to allow for a progressive tax system, both the House and Senate would have to pass a resolution with supermajorities to put a referendum on the ballot seeking to change the income tax.
Harmon, who is sponsoring a progressive income tax amendment in the Senate, acknowledged that implementing this type of tax system is no easy feat.
"I don't know ... if we're able to put this on the ballot and get the support of the voters, but it would give us a tool in our tool box to raise adequate state revenue and potentially, as Representative Ford suggested, shift the burden of education funding away from the property tax, almost inordinately, and spread it across tax bases," Harmon told the audience.
Lightford, however, said tying the income tax issue to education funding is not the correct approach.
She pointed to the state's temporary personal and corporate income tax hikes that were implemented in 2011 and are set to expire in 2015.
"We've already passed that income tax increase and what happened? Not much additional dollars went to education, let me say that," Lightford said.
The focus, she said, should be on reforming the state's education funding formulas and demanding that Springfield provide schools with the funding levels required by law.
"If we wanted to put the money in the right place, that's what the income tax that we originally voted on was supposed to do, and now it's sunsetting after four years, and now we're saying, 'We'll we need this progressive tax, because we need to pay for education funding.' Well, we needed it four year ago also," she said.
The legislators also talked at length about the state's $100 billion pension crisis, which among other things threatens to consume funding for education and other crucial human services.
The legislature's pension conference committee is currently looking at a proposal estimated to save $138 million in 30 years that would change the 3 percent compound interest on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to one-half of inflation. Under the plan, the COLA could not fall below 1 percent. Active public employees would also pay one percentage point less to their personal retirement.
"I support the broad parameters," Harmon said. "We have not seen the final report from the conference committee, and we need to make sure the details match up to the conversation thus far."
Ford, however, said he would not support any bill that reduces benefits, saying such a move would be unconstitutional.
Lightford said "it's totally wrong" to diminish or take away retirees' benefits, but she stopped short of saying whether or not she supports the conference committee's framework. She did say, however, that she would vote for a pension reform package that had the backing of the Teachers' Retirement System.
An Elected Chicago School Board?
This past month, education activists in Chicago began to intensify the pressure for an elected school board in the city by holding their first "People's School Board" meeting. Organizers are also working to build a statewide coalition to help advance, HB 2793, a bill that would call for the election of Chicago Board of Education members instead of the current appointment system. The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois.
The elected Chicago school board bill was introduced back in February by State Reps. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) and Emanuel "Chris" Welch (D-Hillside). State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) also signed on as a co-sponsor. The measure, however, never made it out of the rules committee before the spring legislative session ended in May.
Lightford, vice-chair of the Senate's education committee, told Progress Illinois that there does not appear to be much discussion among state lawmakers, at least in the Senate at the moment, around legislation for a Chicago elected school board.
The state senator said she's "not sure how the at-large body feels" about such a measure and whether it could garner the 30 votes necessary to pass in the Senate and 60 votes needed to make it through the House.
There aren't enough Chicago legislators to pass the bill on their own, so it's going to be up to community activists to "give a good argument" as to why lawmakers outside the city should support such a measure, she added. A strong case also needs to be made about why the legislature's decision to give the mayor control over the schools in 1995 is not ideal for today's times.
When asked whether she supports the idea of an elected school board in Chicago, Lightford said, "I support local control, but I'm always challenged too by good decisions being made by the board, and I don’t know if there [would be] better decision making by the appointed board or by the elected board. I know mainly elected boards are more accountable to the people versus being accountable to an administration."
Lightford would not say whether she would vote for legislation allowing for an elected Chicago school board.
"It's one of those areas that I need to see the bill," she said.
Specifically, she would need more details about how the city would be portioned off for this type of an election.
"There are some wealthy areas and poor areas [of Chicago], and if the lines of the boundaries aren't drawn carefully, you still won't have representation by the most vulnerable," the senator noted.
She would also need details about how many elected members would be on the school board as well as what their term limits would be.
"There’s lots to go into it in terms of me saying whether or not I support it," Lightford stressed. "The general sounds good when you say, "Do you support elected or appointed?" But give me some of the meat of it."