A new government agency could boost the number of charter schools in Illinois. But the way the agency is financing itself raises questions.
The Illinois State Charter School Commission, created by a law enacted this summer, can authorize charter schools that fail to win approval of local school districts. The per-pupil state funding for the charter schools comes at the expense of the districts. The commission will also monitor the performance of schools it authorizes.
Despite the commission’s responsibilities, the state has not provided it any startup money. The only public-funding mechanism won’t be in place until next July, when the commission can begin collecting a fee from schools it authorizes.
Greg Richmond, the commission chairman, said his agency will need between $100,000 and $200,000 to operate until then.
The law that set up the commission allows it to raise private money. The commission’s sole funding so far is a $50,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which supports several Illinois charter school operators and their state trade group.
Told by WBEZ about this financing, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said it created a conflict of interest.
“This is really the rubber hitting the road — why we thought this was a bad law,” said Montgomery, whose union includes most K-12 teachers in Chicago. “The state should reconsider this. I don’t think the people of Illinois would stand for the gaming industry, say, to have the right to reverse a community’s decision not to allow a race track in its town. I don’t know why we wouldn’t give at least the same protections to the children of Illinois.”
A spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, echoed Montgomery.
But the law’s chief sponsor, state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said providing taxpayer funds for the commission’s launch would have been unpopular. “It was not going to make folks happy [to take] dollars away that could be going to the traditional public schools,” she said.
Other states have allowed charter school commissions to launch with private funding, Steans said.
The Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t see a conflict with the commission accepting foundation money, according to board spokeswoman Mary Fergus. “If we had any information that specific strings were attached to the donation/funding, that would be a problem,” Fergus said in a statement.
Before the commission’s creation, charter school operators that failed to win authorization from local school districts could appeal to ISBE. That state board received dozens of appeals but, according to Fergus, it reversed a district and authorized a charter school just three times.
Charter schools are independently run but depend on public funds. Most of their taxpayer support would otherwise go to local school districts.
Chicago officials have encouraged charter schools. On Wednesday, the city’s Board of Education approved a plan for 12 new charter school campuses. Chicago already has 109, a district spokeswoman said.
Elsewhere in Illinois, only 14 charter schools are operating. Officials in many districts say charters would weaken other schools by taking away students and resources. Those officials have been reluctant to authorize charter schools.
The nine commission members — recommended by Gov. Pat Quinn and appointed by ISBE — are already holding official meetings and overseeing a staff member, attorney Jeanne Nowaczewski.
The commission this month handled its first case, an appeal from a charter school operator spurned by school officials in west suburban Maywood. That operator withdrew the appeal last week after meeting with Nowaczewski, according to Richmond, the commission chairman.
The money for the commission’s staffing and other expenses so far comes from the Walton foundation. That family started Walmart and Sam’s Club. Other recipients of Walton grants include the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, a statewide umbrella. The foundation reports that it gave the network more than $1 million in 2010. Andrew Broy, the network’s president, said the amount for 2011 is about $950,000.
The network also serves as an intermediary — a “fiscal agent” in nonprofit parlance — for Walton’s funding of the state commission. Richmond said Nowaczewski receives her paychecks from the network, not the commission.
Richmond acknowledged that the Walton money could create the perception that the commission has a conflict of interest. But he urged the public to withhold judgment on the financing until seeing how the commission performs.
“We’re going to do everything possible to do the right thing, to act ethically, to make decisions based on the merits of what’s in the interest of kids, what’s in compliance with the law,” Richmond said.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office hasn’t issued an opinion about whether the commission’s funding meets legal and ethical standards, a spokeswoman said.
The Illinois Association of School Administrators, which represents most school district superintendents in the state, declined to comment about the commission’s financing.