Charter supporters rally against bills in Illinois legislature

Illinois General Assembly is considering a dozen bills that could impact charter schools

April 8, 2014

Patrick Smith and Linda Lutton

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Chicago charter school parents, students and teachers gather near U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday morning. The group met there before heading down to Springfield to join other charter advocates for a rally in the Illinois capitol building.

Hundreds of Chicago charter school parents, students and alums rallied in Springfield Tuesday to oppose legislation they say will hurt charter schools.

The group started its day with a rally outside U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, with more than 20 tour buses lined up to take them to the capitol. Supporters wore yellow scarves and carried printed signs that read “I choose charter.”

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy addressed parents and others before they departed to join up with supporters from other Illinois communities.

“This is a statewide movement,” Broy told the group. “We face threats in Springfield that we’ve never faced before. There are no fewer than twelve different bills in Springfield designed to limit your right to choose the best school for your student. And we’re not going to let that happen.”

Charter advocates planned to pack the capitol rotunda. They said they want state lawmakers to see the faces of charter parents and students, students they say would be hurt if those dozen pending bills are passed into law.

Some of the key bills being considered:

-SB2627/HB3754 would get rid of a charter school appeals commission that can approve charter schools even if  the local school board denies them.

-SB3303 would prohibit charters from opening in the same zip code as a  closed traditional school.

-HB4655/SB3004 would force charters to follow  the same discipline policies that traditional schools follow.

-SB3030/HB6005 would forbid charter schools from marketing, prohibit charters from subcontracting with Educational Management Organizations and Charter Management Organizations to operate schools and create a compensation cap for school CEOs.

A number of the bills were introduced by suburban lawmakers. Their interest in charters was piqued last year when a for-profit company, K12, Inc., proposed opening virtual charter schools in more than a dozen suburban school districts. All the districts  rejected the plan. As state law is currently written, the Illinois State Charter Commission could overrule those local districts.

That happened last year when the charter provider that operates Chicago Math and Science Academy tried to open up two new schools in the city. The school district denied the provider’s request to expand, but when the organization appealed, the commission gave the go ahead.

Charter advocates say a neutral committee needs to examine the merits of charter proposals, because school boards often have a disincentive—even if district schools are weak—to approve charters.

Many students and parents at the morning Chicago rally said they were there to support individual schools. 

Nahum Alcantar said he supports charter schools because he thinks his charter school has given him a better education than a public school could have. Alcantar, a senior at Chicago Math and Science Academy, went to Kilmer Elementary, a CPS neighborhood school, before enrolling at the charter.

“I’ve been to a charter school and I’ve been to a public school and based on my experience … charter schools can ... provide the same amount of education that public schools can,” Alcantar said. “From the schools that I went (to) and compared to the charter school that I go (to)  now I’ve gotten a really better education.”

Many also said they believe their charter schools are underfunded relative to traditional Chicago Public Schools.  But the school district says charters and other schools get exactly equal funding.

Although it has been a complaint from charter opponents, many rallying parents said they see no connection between charter schools opening and traditional schools closing

“We’re not making that school worse, we’re not making it a bad school. If they can’t get the grades or what they need then they should close,” said charter parent Amber Mandley. “It’s not our (fault) it’s happening, just because we want to keep our schools running doesn’t mean we’re trying to close CPS schools.”

Ebony Edwards-Carr, who like Mandley has children at the Chicago International Charter School in Bucktown, said the day “is about uniting” parents, charter school or otherwise.
 
The Chicago Teachers Union supports many of the bills on the table.

Its membership is threatened by charter school expansion; as charters expand and traditional schools close, Chicago Teachers Union’s membership is dwindling. Charter teachers are not allowed to be represented by the CTU.

Stacy Davis Gates, CTU’s political director, said suburban districts are looking at Chicago as  a “cautionary tale” where “neighborhood schools have been chased out by charters.” Gates said the state needs to “close some of these loopholes”  in state charter law.

She said the bills being considered will bring more transparency and accountability to charter schools. 

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid. Linda Lutton is WBEZ’s education reporter, follow her @WBEZeducation.