Charter school supporters rally against slew of bills

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More than a thousand charter school supporters gathered in April 2014, for a quick rally before heading to Springfield.

Photo by Marc Monaghan

More than a thousand charter school supporters gathered in April 2014, for a quick rally before heading to Springfield.

One bill would eliminate the state’s independent charter school authorizer. Another would place a cap on salaries for charter school CEOs and require school districts—not schools themselves–to hold lotteries for new students. A third bill would prevent the opening of new charter schools in neighborhoods where traditional public school have been shuttered in the past decade.

These are just three of nearly a dozen charter school-related bills before the Illinois Legislature this year that pick away at the historic autonomy granted to charter schools.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy says it’s the biggest wave of anti-charter school legislation he’s ever seen.

“There’s no question about it. This year is the most dangerous year to the charter school system we’ve ever had,” Broy said in a recent interview with Catalyst Chicago.  “These bills would fundamentally alter the way charter accountability works.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other critics say that publicly funded but privately run charter schools need more oversight, citing as proof last year’s corruption scandal at the United Neighborhood Organization Charter School Network.

“Taxpayers are demanding more accountability from charter operators,” said CTU President Karen Lewis in a statement. “They want to know whether the money going to these schools is actually being spent on educating students.”

Some outside observers say it might be time to have a conversation about whether Illinois should continue having charter schools, period, instead of addressing the issue through piecemeal legislation in a highly charged and impassioned environment. In a way, the bills are a response to the outrage felt by many educators and parents after CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools last year.

The battle over charter schools plays out differently from state to state. National attention has recently been focused on New York City, where the state Legislature thwarted Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s attempt to charge rent to charter schools operating in public buildings.

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called the anti-charter school bills under consideration in Illinois “out of step” with the best practices in state laws across the country. She weighed in on the legislation in a press release sent out on Tuesday in support of the close to 1,500 Illinois charter school students and parents who traveled to Springfield to lobby legislatures to vote against the bills.

Here’s a summary of the major bills and where they stand in the legislative process:

  • House Bill 6005/Senate Bill 3030: More accountability. This multi-layered amendment to the state’s charter schools law has been voted out of both the House Education Committee and Senate Subcommittee on charter schools. It would remove the authority to operate lotteries for new students away from charter schools and place it into the hands of the school’s “authorizer” (usually the district). The bill includes several accountability measures, such as: prohibiting charter school staff from being employed by the school’s management company; requiring charter schools to pay back a pro-rated portion of public funding provided to the school district when students transfer out; preventing charter schools from using public dollars for advertising purposes; capping the salary for charter school CEOs at 80 percent of the district superintendent’s salary, and charter school principals’ salary at 10 percent more than the average salary for other principals in the district; and creating an audit process for charter schools that spend more of their budget for administration purposes than the district. Also, the bill would require the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to conduct an assessment of the impact of charter schools on the school system – including funding flow, enrollment, graduation and attrition rates. Charter schools could also lose state funding if they don’t meet all reporting requirements.
  • SB 2627/HB 3754: Scrap charter commission. The bill to repeal the Illinois State Charter School Commission – which has authorized four charter schools since its creation – has been voted out of the full House, and a companion bill is in the Senate education committee. The bill would also require ISBE to prepare an annual report based on the evaluations of charter schools sent in each year by local school districts. ISBE opposes the bill, arguing that the commission complies with all state requirements and should be allowed to continue its work.
  • SB 2779/HB 4237: Approval referendum. This bill would significantly change the appeals process for charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards. It has been voted out of the House education committee, but remains in the Senate education committee. It would require prospective charter school operators whose applications are approved by the state in the appeals process to then go to a referendum. 
  • HB 4655/SB 3004: Curbing disciplineThis bill seeks to reduce the use of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions unless the safety of other students or staff is at risk at traditional public schools, while requiring charter schools to comply with some new requirements. It has been voted out of both the House and Senate Education committees.  Under the bill, all schools – including charters — must provide behavioral and educational support services to suspended students and submit to the school district detailed documentation about incidents leading to out-of-school suspensions or arrests; school districts must compile these reports into annual summaries that are available for public review. Charter school employees can’t encourage students to leave a school to avoid formal disciplinary procedures or fine students for breaking the rules, both common practices in some Chicago charter schools. Catalyst has reported on some of these controversial disciplinary policies on several occasions.
  • HB 4527: Special education, ELL. This ISBE initiative explicitly mandates that charter schools comply with all state laws on special education and English Language Learners students. It has been voted out of the full House, but has not yet been voted on by the Senate’s Education Committee. ISBE believes all schools should comply with special regulations on educating vulnerable populations, but charter school supporters say it’s unnecessary because schools already comply with federal laws – which are less stringent. 
  • HB 4591: Return of public funds. This bill would require that state funding follow students who are dismissed from charter schools into their new schools. The bill has been voted out of the House Education committee but it has no companion bill in the Senate. Charter school operators would have to return 100 percent of the district’s per capita student tuition money, on a pro-rated basis for the time the student is no longer enrolled in the school. Critics say the bill ignores the fact charter schools receive less money in per-pupil funding than other schools.

Another bill — SB 3303, which has had no traction in the state Legislature — would prohibit the opening of any new charter schools in neighborhoods where a traditional public school has been closed in the past decade. Meanwhile, HB 5328 would require charter schools in Chicago to be administered by local school councils, just like traditional public schools. While that bill has been approved by the Education committee, it has no companion bill in the Senate. 

INCS is tracking all charter school-related bills on its web site, as is the CTU