Why Illinois’ political cousins have far more charters

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Glance at a map of charter schools in the Lake Michigan region and you’ve got to wonder: What’s with Illinois?

While the politics and demographics of Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin are similar in many ways, their charter school showings are quite different. Michigan has 173 charters, Wisconsin has 83, but Illinois has only 19, and 13 of those are in Chicago.

A Catalyst examination of the charter laws in these three states found both obvious and subtle reasons for the differences. And an examination of the politics suggests that Illinois’ charter advocates will have a hard time changing the law to increase the number of charters in the Land of Lincoln. Here is Web Site Editor Dan Weissmann’s analysis.

Michigan: Charter mills

The reason Michigan has so many charters is obvious: Any state university, community college or regional school board can issue one. If an applicant is turned down by one authorizer, it can approach another. In Illinois, charter applicants must seek the backing of local school districts; rejected applicants can appeal to the Illinois State Board of Education, but it has sided with the school board in 90 percent of the appeals.

Charter advocates tend to favor laws like Michigan’s. The Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based advocate, ranks Michigan’s law second among the 37 on the books today. With a variety of authorizers, school boards tend to work with charter applicants, says charter expert Ted Kolderie, because they figure “the damn thing could appear in our town anyway, so the practical question becomes, Would we rather have it under our own direct sponsorship?” Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn., was an architect of Minnesota’s charter law, the country’s first.

Local districts in Michigan haven’t issued many charters—just 13 of 183, with state universities giving out 149. With 58 charters, Central Michigan University is known in some circles as “Charter Mill University.”

Charters are contributing to change in regular public schools, says Bob Harris, the charter expert for the state’s largest teacher union, the Michigan Education Association. Local districts “are changing their behavior to respond to competition, but not just from charter schools—also from inter-district and intra-district choice. Because the money follows the student, everybody’s competing with everybody else.”

Wisconsin: ‘Company’ charters

Wisconsin’s law is even more restrictive than Illinois’ in some respects. Outside Milwaukee, local school districts are the only bodies that can approve charters, and their decisions are final. Even so, districts outside Milwaukee have approved 75 charter schools. The reason has to do with the particulars of charter governance.

Unlike Illinois, which grants charters only to independent, non-profit organizations, Wisconsin grants charters to school districts themselves.

Ideas for Wisconsin charters have come from parents, teachers and outside agencies, but the power to create the school itself—and the control over the school’s functions, finances and employees—lies with the district.

“It makes a big difference,” says Dennis Wicklund, who administers the state’s charter school program. “The district holds the charter. Plus, then all the charter employees are employees of the district.”

Charters also benefit from a wrinkle in Wisconsin’s state school bureaucracy called Cooperative Educational Service Areas, or CESAs (pronounced SEE-sahs). CESAs allow small districts to economize by buying in bulk, whether they’re looking for computer equipment or staff. A small district that may not need a full-time social worker, say, can go in on one with several nearby districts; the CESA is the social worker’s official employer.

Similarly, Wisconsin’s charter law and school regulations allow districts to share a charter through a CESA, with each district sending a certain number of kids. About half of the charters in Wisconsin are schools for at-risk high school students, says Wicklund, including some run by CESAs.

Kolderie dismisses such programs as being, on the whole, not very innovative. “I think that the whole impulse of the kind of program that we’d like to see, we don’t really see in Wisconsin,” he says. “You don’t have the dynamics created by the presence of an alternative sponsor. School boards have so much leverage, they don’t really let teachers or parents do much of anything.”

Wicklund says that an increasing number of charters in Wisconsin take thematic approaches to curriculum and are created in cooperation with parents and local institutions, but he acknowledges that Wisconsin’s charters may be less diverse than those in states that give local districts less control.

Even so, Wicklund thinks Wisconsin’s approach is appropriate for a state with well-regarded public schools. “When you have public schools in your state that are high quality to begin with, people don’t look for too many ways to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “Charters in Wisconsin are effective, because it allows us to deal with the problem that we do have, which is dealing with at-risk kids.”

Illinois: Slow evolution

The Illinois charter law has changed in several ways since it was adopted in 1996, although none of the changes has created the kind of growth that charter boosters would like to see.

A 1997 amendment created an appeals process, allowing rejected applicants to make a case to the state board. However, so far the state board has been fairly sympathetic to local boards, approving only two of 21 appeals filed to date. Kolderie calls the ISBE “chicken —that’s the technical term.”

A 1999 amendment created “impact aid” for districts with new charters, a three-year funding supplement to cushion the financial blow that many districts say they fear. Even so, finances remain a common reason charters get rejected, says Janet Allison, the state board’s charter school consultant. The local district’s financial condition was a consideration in each of the four appeals the board heard, and rejected, last summer, she notes.

“I think it’s kind of facile to say the finances don’t work,” counters John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed group that pushes charters in Illinois. “Yes, we should take finances out of failing districts.”

n Another 1999 amendment allowed districts to take a more active role in organizing charter schools, bringing Illinois’ law a step closer to Wisconsin’s. However, in Illinois, charters must still be held by an independent non-profit organization, so boards here still have less control than in Wisconsin.

Ayers says his group plans to ask for more changes in the Illinois law, most notably adding another institution that could authorize charters, such as a university or an independent, statewide charter board.

He faces an uphill battle, since the state’s two teacher unions and the Illinois School Boards Association are all opposed.

Jackie Gallagher, spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union cites the Thomas Jefferson Charter School in Chicago’s northern suburbs as “a glaring example of why we need the local board” to make charter decisions. The state board granted Jefferson’s charter over local objections, and even Ayers acknowledges that the school has not been a success. At the outset, it struggled to find a site, it has moved more than once, and most of its board has turned over.

Maintaining local-district control over charters is a top priority of the Illinois Education Association (IEA), which represents most teachers outside Chicago. When the state’s charter law was first passed, the IEA “worked very hard to ensure that the local school district—and our affiliate there—would be scrutinizing the charter application on its merits,” says George King, the association’s communications director.

Political differences

In Wisconsin and Michigan, the education institutions either supported or were in no position to thwart charters.

By putting charter governance in the hands of local school boards, Wisconsin’s law had the backing of the state school board association. By extending union membership and pension participation to employees of district-run charters, it also avoided antagonizing teacher unions.

Michigan passed its charter law under the leadership of a charismatic Republican governor, John Engler, who made the bill a priority at a time when both houses of the state legislature were GOP-controlled. The state teacher unions had few relationships with Republicans at the time, so they had little power to resist.

The Illinois affiliates of both national teachers unions are a strong presence in Springfield. However, the IEA has strong relationships with both Democrats and Republicans, thanks to a longstanding bi-partisan approach that until recently was unusual for teacher unions.

The IEA was the state’s number two contributor to legislative campaigns in the 1996 election cycle, splitting its $1.2 million almost equally between Republicans and Democrats. (In contrast, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and its Chicago affiliate overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates in 1996, as they traditionally do.)

In 1998, the IEA endorsed the winning gubernatorial candidate, Republican George Ryan, who beat a Democrat who was a former school teacher. Ryan rewarded the IEA by appointing Hazel Loucks, an IEA official, as his deputy governor for education.

“They have got the sweetest deal in the world,” Ayers says of the IEA. “They are the 800-pound gorilla in this scenario.”

Even so, Kolderie takes heart in recalling the first time he visited Springfield to talk about charters, in 1993. After meeting with legislators, Kolderie spoke briefly with a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who had listened to Kolderie’s pitch and said, “Never in Illinois.” By the end of 1994, the GOP controlled both houses of the state legislature, and in 1996, the state passed its first charter law.