Illinois charters lack transparency

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In Massachusetts, the public can easily find financial information for charters, including how much money they bring in, where that money comes from—including private sources—and how much the schools spend on teacher salaries and other expenses.

In Illinois, it is nearly impossible to get a good read on similar financial information from charters. Doing so, however, could help direct policy, serve as a guide for future charter schools and give authorizers specific information about which charter schools are in financial trouble.

According to Illinois’ new charter school law, charters are only required to submit an audit and a copy of their tax forms to the state. Audits are done by independent companies. Some are detailed, others not.

While CPS, the state and the federal government provide the biggest chunk of the operating budget for charters, some charters maintain they shouldn’t be subject to the same reporting requirements as other public schools. In 2009, more than $200 million in public funds were provided to Chicago’s 71 charter schools.

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) notes that last year, Illinois lawmakers approved new legislation meant to increase accountability by forcing charter schools to report data by campus. But she concedes that none of the newly required information will detail expenditures and revenues.

A task force recently recommended that lawmakers pass legislation that would create an independent charter school authorizer. Steans says she could see including language in that legislation to raise the financial accounting required from charter schools. “There is probably more we could be doing on it,” she says.

For its May study on charter school funding, Ball State University contracted with Meagan Batdorff, the founder and lead consultant of Progressive EdGroup, to collect data on funding from 25 states. Illinois’ charter schools were among the hardest to get information on, Batdorff says.

Some of the states post detailed information online. But in Illinois, Batdorff had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the state and the district. In response, she received only audits, which are not standardized and hard to pull detailed information from.

On audits, it is often difficult to discern the source of revenues or specifics on expenses, Batdorff says. As a result, Illinois’ information is murky. According to the study, some $9,000 per student in charter schools is from non-public but indeterminate sources. Much of that is likely from private fundraising, but Batdorff could not tell specifics.

Without specific financial information, such as textbook spending or average teacher pay, other questions about charter schools can’t be answered, Batdorff says.
 
“There is no way to tell how school funding is impacting actual performance or how teacher pay impacts performance,” she says.

Five months ago, Catalyst ran into roadblocks as we sought information that is readily available for traditional public schools, such as revenue, expenditures and the names and positions of employees.

Catalyst submitted FOIA requests to each of Chicago’s charters. Twenty charter operators provided the requested information, in hard copy or electronically. Those that responded included larger networks—Noble Street Charter and the University of Chicago among them—and small, individual schools such as Namaste.

Even so, transparency was uneven among the 20 operators. Several schools declined to release teacher names, arguing that the names are private. Yet, the names of all public employees are regularly published in budgets released by government agencies.

Another 13 operators either denied the FOIA request or failed to respond after numerous attempts to reach them. Among the five that denied the request were United Neighborhood Organization’s charter school network and three of the four education management organizations that run the campuses of Chicago International, the city’s largest operator.

In UNO’s denial, Homero Tristan from TGC Partners, a downtown law firm, argued that UNO is not a public body. Civitas, whose teachers unionized last year, made the same argument.
Catalyst appealed the denial to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which has not yet issued a formal ruling but suggested that Catalyst make its request to CPS. As the government agency that contracts with charters, the district is required to provide the information. Armed with language from the attorney general, Catalyst went back to CPS, which in June provided budget information and employee lists.

Andy Shaw, executive director of the watchdog Better Government Association, says charter schools are clearly subject to the FOIA. He points out that they receive “our” tax dollars so they are “our” business.

“Academic outcomes are only one measure of their success, and watchdogs like Catalyst or the Better Government Association are entitled to review and assess other measures that depend on disclosure and transparency to gather the necessary data,” Shaw says.

However, some of the data was difficult to analyze because there is no standard form for reporting, and therefore no uniformity. (Teacher service records compiled by the Illinois State Board of Education for all public school teachers include standardized, detailed information on, among other data, salaries, years of experience, grades taught and degrees held.)