Bill could mean more charters in the suburbs

May 18, 2011

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(Photo courtesy of Prairie Crossing Charter School)
New legislation could mean more charter schools in the suburbs.

Legislation that could result in more charter schools in Chicago’s suburbs is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Under the bill, a new state commission will have the power to authorize charter schools if individual school districts don’t.

Suburban school districts have been reluctant to authorize charters. They’ve argued that the schools siphon away students and resources from existing district schools.  Charter schools are independently run but publicly funded; districts must turn over a per pupil funding amount to support charters.

Educator and parent Laura Mudd tried to get a dual language charter school approved in Evanston years ago.

“Right away it’s looked at as negative in the suburbs,” says Mudd. “So if you have an independent panel that’s reviewing the applications, and one looks really good and viable, I think there will be greater chances for these charters to at least get a try.”

Chicago regularly authorizes new charter schools, though the decisions are nearly always controversial.

Meanwhile, just three charters exist in the suburbs: they include Southland College Prep Charter High School in Richton Park and two north suburban elementary schools, Prairie Crossing Charter in Grayslake and Cambridge Lakes Charter in Pingree Grove.

In the past, charter applicants have been able to appeal denials by their local school districts to the Illinois State Board of Education. A state board spokeswoman said only 2 of 46 appeals have resulted in the local school board’s decision being overturned.

One of those was Southland College Prep Charter. But Rich Township High School District 227, where Southland is located, has continued to fight the charter, which opened last fall. The district sued the state board to try to keep it from opening; that lawsuit is still pending. District officials have said the charter school will bankrupt them.

State law allows for 45 charter schools outside Chicago; 13 exist. Most are in the state’s other urban centers—Rockford, Springfield, East St. Louis, and Peoria.

In the north suburbs, Matt McDermott, an organizer with the group Lake County United, said it’s too early to say whether residents there will now try again to get a charter high school approved in Waukegan. The school district denied a charter proposal in 2008.

“That was a huge effort and it would take a lot of stars aligning and community leadership to want to come back to try to do that again,” said McDermott.

Under the legislation, charter applicants would still have to seek approval first from their local school boards. If they are denied, they could then appeal to the new State Charter School Commission, which will also monitor school performance at the schools it authorizes. The nine-member commission will be chosen from a slate of candidates suggested by the governor. The legislation requires all to have a “demonstrated understanding of and commitment to public education.” At least three members must have experience with “urban charter schools.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn could not immediately say whether he intends to sign the bill.