Proposed law would create new commission to approve charter schools

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A hearing may take place next week on proposed legislation that would create a new public body to decide on charter school applications, with
the power to overturn a district’s decision not to approve a charter.

A hearing may take place next week on proposed legislation that would
create a new public body to decide on charter school applications, with
the power to overturn a district’s decision not to approve a charter.

Illinois law now allows up to 120 charter schools – 75 in Chicago (including five that must be targeted to dropout recovery) and 45 in the rest of the state. In Chicago, 29 charters operate over 70 campuses; just 10 charters are now in operation elsewhere throughout the state.

That may change if Senate Bill 79  is enacted.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), would create a State Charter School Commission, which would become the primary “authorizer” and make the decisions on whether or not an application for a new charter school will be approved.

Commission members would be appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education from among candidates slated by the governor. But by law, the commission would be independent and free to act on charter applications as it sees fit. The commission would be funded by the charter schools it approves.

The authorized charters would be pretty independent, too. Each would be, by law, a “local education agency” – a legal term that now applies mainly to school districts. Their only oversight would be from their authorizer, the commission.

Steans plays down the power of the commission her bill would create. The bill does not raise the number of charters allowed. Charter applications would still start out, as they do now, as requests made to local school boards. Accountability for performance is strong.

“Charter school advocates think it [her bill] is too tame,” she says.

She also noted that the bill is not in final form. Negotiations are under way involving teachers unions, the Statewide School Management Alliance (a coalition of school administrator groups), various charter school advocacy organizations and others who have interests to protect or ideas to contribute, she said.

Because of these discussions, SB 79 is not posted for the Senate Education Committee’s next hearings on Tuesday, March 1, but Steans hopes an amendment can be ready for consideration by the following week.

All charter applications start with the school district board. If the board rejects an application – which is common downstate for a variety of reasons – the decision can be appealed to the State Board of Education. Steans’ bill would add a focused “authorizer” to the mix.

The commission she proposes would be empowered to overturn a district’s rejection, or even to authorize a charter if a district fails to meet a deadline for action.

To fund a charter school, ISBE would withhold from the public school district an amount equal to the district’s per-student operating expenses, multiplied by the number of students enrolled in the school chartered through the commission – and then transfer the dollars to the charter school.

For its own operating funds, the commission could charge the charter school 3% of the funds it receives, albeit indirectly, from the local school district.

In its current form, the bill includes detailed requirements for fiscal and academic accountability, for measuring student performance and achieving other goals. It represents a major change in current Illinois school policy.

Will SB 79, or something like it, be enacted? For a relatively new legislator, Sen. Steans has shown herself to be tenacious and effective. Her co-sponsor is Sen. David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville), a veteran legislator and former educator who has a powerful voice in the Senate Republican caucus.

If anything close to consensus emerges from the current negotiations, the Senate will be receptive.


Jim Broadway is the founder and publisher of State School News Service.