This month, the Illinois General Assembly introduced around a dozen bills that threaten the autonomy of charter schools in the state. Several of the bills passed quickly through the Illinois House of Representatives and now await Senate approval. The proposals have included limitations on staff salaries, as well as requirements that charter schools adhere to federal standards for English language learners and special education students. One especially controversial bill, introduced in the House as HB3754, would close down the State Charter School Commission (SCSC) and return the Commission’s responsibilities to the Illinois Board of Education. The bill, sponsored by Aurora Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D), passed the House on March 20 and now awaits Senate approval. Both Chapa LaVia and Senate sponsor Senator Kimberly Lightford (D) say they are optimistic about the bill passing the Senate. State Representative Chapa LaVia said in an interview conducted with The Gate, “There is no such thing as a dead bill in Springfield if there’s a will.”
Chapa LaVia also sponsored several of the other bills that are making their way through the General Assembly. Notably, SB2779 serves as an alternative to SB2627 and would require a voter referendum in the district in which a charter school has been approved by Illinois State Board of Education or the SCSC. Like SB2627, SB2779 currently awaits Senate approval. Chapa LaVia says that if both pass, sponsors of the bills will sit down with the governor’s staff and negotiate which bills go into effect.
The state legislature created the State Charter School Commission in 2011, in a bill supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a controversial organization of conservative legislators. The bill gave the State Charter School Commission the power to approve charter school applications rejected by local school boards, a function that had previously been performed by the Illinois Board of Education. Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, is also the chair of the SCSC. In the last two years, the SCSC approved two charter schools that local boards of education refused. In contrast, the Illinois Board of Education approved two charter schools in the fifteen years prior to the creation of the SCSC.
On April 8, charter school supporters held a rally in the Illinois State Capitol. Hundreds of parents and students came out to demonstrate their opposition to anti-charter school legislation. Advocates for the State Charter School Commission argue that an external board is more objective than local school boards, which have a vested interest against opening new charter schools.
Chapa LaVia and others who support eliminating the board say that the SCSC is an organization without legislative power and that lacks voter approval. Eliminating it would merely make the process of approving charter schools more transparent and accountable to Illinois voters.
Proponents of charter schools in general argue that the schools provide a better quality of education to kids who may not have be able to afford private school. In addition, charter schools serve as laboratories for new education policies that can later be applied to public schools in general. Advocates argue that those trying to stymie charter schools put politics over the quality of education that children receive. On the other side, opponents, including teachers unions and many liberal legislators, argue that charter schools have only proven to be a drain on the public school system and that the data does not substantiate claims that charter schools actually provide a higher quality of education.
Any action taken in the legislature regarding charter schools will be particularly relevant to the city of Chicago: 130 of the state’s 145 charter schools are in Chicago alone. Likewise, seven more are slated to open by the end of the year while several traditional schools will close their doors. According to State Senator Kimberly Lightford, even if the General Assembly succeeds in passing anti-charter school legislation, it will not affect the way that charter schools are approved in the City of Chicago. This means that the bill itself is not likely to considerably change the trajectory of charter schools in Chicago.
Action by the General Assembly comes at an important moment, as the debate on charter schools has gained new steam nationally in the past year. In the context of a failing public school system, charter schools have proved to be one of the most viable models of major educational reform. The debate heated up earlier this year when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to renew the colocation of three Success charter schools put in place by the Bloomberg administration. By doing so, he angered charter school advocates and parents. The fight culminated in a rally of charter supporters in Albany, led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, an advocate of charter schools.
Like in New York, the politics of charter schools in Illinois will play out on multiple levels. Those following the charter school debate should keep their eyes on the General Assembly. The bills examined in this article are merely two of around a dozen bills that would affect charter schools in Illinois. Despite this, politics on the city level have played, and will likely continue to play, a much larger role in the propagation of charter schools in Chicago.