Charters: Open more, or rein them in?

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Updated April 23, 2008–The Illinois Senate has passed two bills that would give Chicago more charters—in one case, by shifting slots to the city from the suburbs and downstate Illinois.

Under the bill sponsored by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), five new slots would be shifted to Chicago, giving the city 35 charters—more than half the statewide cap of 60. The new charters would be solely for truants and dropouts; each charter would be allowed up to 25 campuses.

A more ambitious bill, sponsored by state Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), would raise the state’s charter cap to 100 and abolish the geographical restrictions on charter location.
 
“We’re beginning to see waiting lists,” Martinez says. “We’re beginning to see that parents want to be able to send their kids to a smaller setting because there is more one-on-one. We’re seeing that test scores have improved dramatically [in some charters]. And at the end of the day, it’s still a public school.”

Both bills passed in the Senate on April 17 and are now awaiting a vote in the House. Most Chicago lawmakers favored both measures.

Supply a problem

Although Lightford’s bill was forged to appease charter opponents—primarily teachers unions—the Chicago Teachers Union opposes the plan, and its statewide affiliate is backing another bill to tighten the reins on charters that don’t meet achievement goals or other standards. Lightford’s bill also would not cap the number of campuses at existing charters—a potential sticking point with opponents, given the proliferation of multi-campus charters in Chicago.

Lightford says she is trying to address a critical need—getting high school dropouts and truants back in school—but by holding tight on the overall number of charters available across the state.

“You have a lot of people who oppose expansion,” Lightford says, referring to teachers unions. “Charters aren’t unionized, so you can expect that there will be opposition.”

State law allows 30 charters in Chicago, 15 in the suburbs and 15 in downstate Illinois. Chicago is using all its charters, but the suburbs have just two and five are downstate, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, known as INCS.

INCS supports Martinez’s bill, but opposes Lightford’s because it would reduce the number of charters in the suburbs and downstate.

“It’s the wrong solution to the urgent problem of the moment, which is the charter supply overall,” says Executive Director Elizabeth Evans. “In an ideal world, it would be a great bill. But we don’t want to start shuffling around our too-small supply.”

Fresh Start vs. charters

Meanwhile, the CTU stands firmly opposed to charter expansion, even in Lightford’s relatively limited plan. Chief of Staff John Ostenburg says the union might support more charters if they are organized in line with the vision of the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker. That means, Ostenburg says, “unionized schools, with certified faculty members, where the faculty is given opportunity to work around the bureaucracy with innovative teaching techniques, etc.” The union-run Fresh Start schools operate along these lines.

“If we got to the point where we could negotiate some type of arrangement where [charters] fell a little more fully under the fold of traditional public schools, then we might be more willing to be supportive,” Ostenburg adds. “But at this juncture, certainly that’s not the case.”

He says charters should focus on developing new teaching techniques that, ultimately, flow back to regular schools.

“More than 10 years have passed with this experiment, and nothing has been implemented in the traditional schools that has come out of the charter schools,” he says.

Revoking charters

The Illinois Federation of Teachers is backing legislation to put pressure on charter schools to meet achievement goals and to comply with charter terms and other standards, including fiscal standards.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago), would require charters that are falling short on these measures to submit a plan to their charter authorizer—i.e., the Chicago Public Schools—with specific plans for improvement. If the charter does not improve, the proposed law would require that the charter be revoked. Current law does not include such a requirement.

Charters are given flexibility and freedom from some state regulations, but “in exchange for that flexibility…the schools need to be held accountable for achieving the goals set out in the charter as well as the law,” says IFT spokesman Dave Comerford.

Golar’s bill is pending before the full House, which could vote on it later this month.

To contact Springfield Correspondent Aaron Chambers, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.