State task force will study proposal for new group to authorize charter schools

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The Illinois State Board of Education is assembling a task force to
study plans for a new, independent authorizer of charter schools—a
controversial idea that supporters say would lead to higher-quality
charters and help Illinois capture some of the nearly $5 billion in
competitive federal stimulus grants.

The Illinois State Board of Education is assembling a task force to study plans for a new, independent authorizer of charter schools—a controversial idea that supporters say would lead to higher-quality charters and help Illinois capture some of the nearly $5 billion in competitive federal stimulus grants.

The task force will submit a non-binding report to lawmakers by January. Several groups have already submitted their choices. The task force will include a wide range of members, including political appointments, charter advocates, teacher and school administrator representatives and experts on charter authorizing. ISBE has asked the various groups involved to submit their picks soon.

The task force reflects a compromise crafted among charter advocates, teachers unions and other interest groups during nearly a year of negotiations regarding Senate Bill 612. The bill lead to sweeping changes of the state’s charter laws this summer, including a dramatic increase in the cap on charters—a move that has galvanized the charter community and, on paper, improved the state’s standing with the charter-friendly administration in D.C.

But charter supporters also suffered political setbacks in the bill, including failure to establish an independent authorizing body that would have the power to grant charters anywhere in the state.

Sylvia Ewing, the interim executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, hopes the task force will move quickly and lawmakers can clear the way for such an authorizer, to send an even clearer pro-charter message to Washington as vetting for Race to the Top funds begins.

Charter advocates say the current law, which requires prospective operators to get the green light from local school boards, presents a conflict of interest for boards that see charters as unwelcome competition.

Ewing says the system has worked fairly well in Chicago, where the Board of Education has set up a comprehensive application process. But intense political fights over charters have erupted in cities like Waukegan and Rockford, and those fights energized charter supporters’ call for an independent authorizer.

On the other hand, teachers unions and some members of the Illinois Association of School Boards worry that an independent authorizer would usurp local authority and perhaps lead to infighting over students and funding between some smaller, cash-strapped districts and new charters.

Ben Schwarm, the associate executive director of governmental affairs for the IASB, says his organization is not completely against an independent authorizer. But the group will seek some form of representation for any local school boards that would be impacted by a charter proposal.

Schwarm also notes that ISBE already has the power, through an appeals process, to override local school boards that turn down charters. He also signaled support for a third party or a university to take on the role, suggesting that budget cuts may have hit ISBE too hard to make the state board a viable alternative.

For proponents like Ewing, an independent authorizer would bring a host of benefits, including paving the way for existing charters to expand. As she puts it, “Good charter schools begin with good authorizers.”

There is evidence to support that position, including a recent report from Stanford University researchers that suggests states with effective authorizing structures were more likely to bring in good charter schools. In part, good authorizers guard against what’s called “charter shopping,” whereby weak charter groups take their plans for a new school to local school districts with low standards.

According to state officials, seven appointees have yet to be named: four from the General Assembly, one for CPS and two from state superintendent. To date, the following groups have submitted their choices:

  • Darren Reisberg, General Counsel – Illinois State Board of Education
  • Sharon Teefey – Illinois Federation of Teachers
  • Audrey Soglin, Director of the Center for Educational Innovation  – Illinois Education Association
  • Paul Swanstrom, Superintendent, Joliet TWP 204  – Illinois Association of School Administrators
  • Michael Bartlett –Deputy Executive Director, Illinois Association of School Boards
  • Traci Cobb Evans, Legislative Issues Coordinator/Lobbyist – Chicago Teachers Union
  • Clarice Berry, President – Chicago Principals and Administrators Association
  • Dea Meyer, Executive Vice President – Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago
  • Todd Ziebarth, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools–Education Commission of the States