Sunday, September 1, 2019

Good riddance to the Charter School Commission

Acero teachers in Chicago won the first charter school strike in U.S. history last year. (Labor Notes pic)
Congratulations to all of us who worked so hard to finally get rid of the Illinois State Charter School Commission. We count our victories one by one.

A new law that goes into effect next year, will abolish the Commission and hopefully limit the wild expansion of privately-operated charter schools. That's the result of Senate Bill 1226, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Aug. 23, over the objections of INCS and charter school lobbyists.  Gov. Rauner vetoed a similar bill last year.

The measure was sponsored by state Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat. Holmes made the case that decisions about charter schools, "belong in the community, not at the state level."

I agree. But even with the new law, we're not quite there yet.

Since 2011, when the Commision was established and signed into law by former Gov. Pat Quinn (yes a Democrat), I've worked with several struggling school districts around the state when they've  had to go before the Commission to plead their case. Together we built a research base which was used to debunk the false claims of the charter operators in an effort to stop invasions by powerful, charter school networks. In some cases we were successful and others we weren't.

I found the decisions by commission members to be be completely arbitrary and biased. Keep in mind that the commission was originally the dream of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and that the money for the commission’s original staffing and other expenses came from the pro-charter Walton Foundation. The Commission has been riddled with conflicts of interest from the start.

Commission members have been generally charter-friendly political appointees chosen by the governor and approved by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). In the eight years prior to Pritzker's election, commission members were handpicked by Rauner, a right-wing governor hellbent on starving and ultimately taking over local school systems, including CPS, using charters and school vouchers as weapons.

But Rauner wasn't the only problem. You might remember when the Commission, acting under pressure from House Speaker Mike Madigan, reversed CPS's rejection of Concept (Gulen) charter schools' application at a time when the FBI was investigating Concept's operations. Records show that the Commission’s Springfield lobbyist, Liz Brown-Reeves, a former Madigan aide, accompanied him on his Gulen sponsored trip to Turkey in 2012.

Earlier this year, the commission approved two Chicago schools: Urban Prep, which the district had ordered closed, and the new citywide school run by Intrinsic.

Currently, there are 140 charter schools in Illinois, 126 of which operate within Chicago Public Schools diverting money, students and teachers away from regular CPS schools. So far there is no evidence that these charters outperform the CPS schools they are trying to replace. In the CPS budget for next year, the district expects to receive $4 million less funding than expected from the state this past school year because “diversions to schools approved by the Illinois State Charter School Commission (SCSC) were higher than expected.”

There are still problems with the new bill. While effectively ending the Commission, the bill shifts its power to reverse local district decisions back over to ISBE, which is also a governor-appointed board.

According to Chalkbeat:
The state board will take over the responsibility of hearing appeals on charter school openings, closings and extensions. The state also will dole out funds it had collected to oversee the schools that the commission had approved. Once the state board takes over the commission’s role, the board will be able to levy a 3% fee on any state-approved charter school to help cover the cost of oversight.
But hopefully, local districts will fare better under the new law and under this governor than under the previous one.

In any case, the struggle continues.

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