Bill to create new charter commission likely to pass

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SPRINGFIELD – Hundreds of charter school students set the state Capitol abuzz Wednesday with a boisterous rally to show off their achievements and extol the virtues of charter schools. They were almost all from Chicago, almost all African American or Latino, almost all brimming with pride in themselves and their schools. They wore their confidence, and carried placards, conspicuously for all to see: “Charter Schools ARE Public Schools!”

They were not “Waiting for Superman,” as in the recent movie. Rather, they were waiting for Senate Bill 79, a pending measure with potential to replicate statewide the notable successes of the charter movement.

Nearly 10% of all Chicago public school children attend a charter school.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools lists 38 charter schools with 104 campuses in Chicago. By contrast, only 13 charter schools have been authorized in the other 867 school districts.

Resistance to charters outside of Chicago is seen as a problem SB 79 is designed to address.

Currently, charter schools are authorized by local school boards, but a board’s rejection can be appealed to the Illinois State Board of Education. An INCS spokesman said there have been 130 appeals and almost all of the 13 non-Chicago charters are a result of local boards’ charter denials being overturned by ISBE.

Under SB 79, a relatively independent commission would be established as an “alternative authorizer” of charter schools. The commission would oversee the schools it authorizes, which would be funded by some of the state dollars that would otherwise flow to the school districts where they are located.

A school board still could appeal the commission’s action under SB 79, but only through a process of judicial review.

The commission would be funded by a 3% fee from the schools it authorizes, but would also be able to seek grants and private sector donations. Commission members would be appointed by ISBE from slates of candidates presented by the governor.

The bill requires “statewide geographical diversity” among commission members, but seems to require conformity with respect to charter advocacy. It states: “All members of the Commission shall have demonstrated understanding of and a commitment to charter schooling as one strategy for strengthening public education.”

A longtime education lobbyist questioned that provision. Would it not be better to have at least a couple of commission members who are inclined to raise questions and spark thoughtful debate?

The charter movement has been a subject of debate for years. It came to a head in 2009 when a report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that only 17% of the thousands of charters reviewed had achieved academic results exceeding those of the schools their students left behind when they enrolled.

But SB 79 appears to have significant momentum in the General Assembly, questions and criticisms aside. State Sen. Heather Steans was enthusiastic Wednesday as she addressed the gathering at the Capitol and spoke of hope for Illinois charter schools and the “more than 15,000 parents who are on waiting lists” to enroll their children in them.

She exhorted the audience to urge their legislators to “vote YES on SB 79!”

In contrast to the dark message of “Waiting for Superman,” Steans made a point of noting that “there is too much of a message out there that the public schools are broken.” This is an overstatement of education’s challenges, she said, and besides that: “Charter schools are public schools.”

Is SB 79 a Chicago education issue or a non-Chicago education issue?

It appears to be both. While the local school board “acceptance gap” is very wide outside of Chicago, the bill is seen as a way to overcome that gap by proving the value of charter schools using the success of Chicago charters as an illustration.

Legislators seem receptive to the concept this year. SB 79 received a unanimous vote in the Senate Education Committee and is poised for passage to the House of Representatives. There are still voices in opposition, of course, but momentum seems to be building.