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Illinois Struggles To Expand Charter Schools Despite Giant Pot Of Federal Money

Blaming the state’s budget crisis and a hostile political climate, Illinois education officials are dramatically scaling back the number of charter schools they estimate will open in the next several years, putting at risk millions of dollars meant to fund the expansion of charter schools in the state.

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Illinois Charter Schools

In this 2010 file photo, Illinois charter school children, teachers, parents and supporters rally in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol for equitable charter school funding. In 2015, the state received a $42 million federal grant to create new charter schools, but recent documents show there have been few takers.

Seth Perlman

Blaming the state’s budget crisis and a hostile political climate, Illinois education officials are dramatically scaling back the number of charter schools they estimate will open in the next several years, putting at risk millions of dollars meant to fund the expansion of charter schools in the state.

Illinois won a $42 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 to encourage dozens of new charter schools to open over the next five years. But those schools have not materialized, and Illinois has now told the U.S. Department of Education it expects fewer than half the original number to open. Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded.

Illinois’ experience may be a cautionary tale. Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate, the federal government seems poised to pursue charter schools as one of the country’s key education strategies. Illinois’ struggle to increase the number of charters shows that even when start-up money is there for the taking, other hurdles keep these schools from opening.

“We’re not putting a dent in the pipeline,” said Claudia Quezada, director of a new charter schools office within the Illinois State Board of Education.

Quezada said she’s met with more than 100 charter operators, foundations, school districts and prospective school operators. She’s tried to encourage charters to open more campuses — especially outside Chicago, where the vast majority of charters are currently located. And she’s cajoled school districts to be more welcoming to charters, which are viewed skeptically by many districts because they drain students and funds from existing schools.

Advocates argue that charters offer parents a higher quality public school option for children otherwise trapped in low-performing schools.

Illinois imagined 48 charter schools opening in five years in its original application for the federal grant money. State officials wanted 24 in Chicago and 24 outside the city, where advocates have been trying unsuccessfully for years to spur more charter school growth.

But so far, the state has awarded money to just one brand-new charter school, the Elgin Math and Science Academy. It also funded four existing charters. Few prospective charters have applied for the start-up money Illinois put on the table, even though they could win grants totaling $950,000 to design their programming and set up shop.

Last month the state officially told the U.S. Department of Education it now estimates just 23 new charters opening in the next several years. And it no longer imagines half of them outside Chicago. Instead, it is forecasting just four charter schools opening in the suburbs, four elsewhere in the state, and 15 in Chicago.

Illinois is waiting to hear from Washington about whether it could lose as much as half its $42 million grant -- and has been operating under the assumption that it will, the State Board of Education said in a grant report submitted to the federal government in April.

Politics blamed for slowed charter growth

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said charters had been expanding in Illinois at the rate of about 12 per year.

“We won and received the second highest award of any state in the nation based on the strength of the charter movement here,” Broy said. “And the fact that today we’re having trouble spending those dollars is very troubling because it’s not about how good our schools are — it’s about the politics of education policy right now.”

In Chicago, strong opposition by the Chicago Teachers Union and some parents and the cash crunch at Chicago Public Schools have helped put a dent in charter school expansion, which was once heavily promoted by City Hall.

Broy’s group helped write the state’s grant and set the original goal of opening 48 charters. He said little has gone right for the charter school movement over the last two years in Chicago and statewide, including a cap on charter enrollment in Chicago in the most recent contract with the Chicago Teachers Union, a prohibition on charters buying vacant Chicago school buildings and a proposed moratorium on charter growth in Illinois that is pending in the Illinois General Assembly.

Add to that declining enrollment in many districts, which makes it harder to argue new schools are needed, and a state that has been without a permanent budget for nearly two years.

“The budget stalemate has had a significant impact on school districts across the state,” state officials wrote in their grant report to the federal government. “As a result, charter school authorizers have been less amenable to opening new schools in their districts.”

Charters must seek permission from local school boards to operate. Paul Swanstrom, a former superintendent of Joliet High School District 204, said charter schools unfortunately feel like natural adversaries to school districts.

“Somebody comes in from the outside and says, ‘You’re not doing a good job with these kids. We can do a better job. And by the way, you’re gonna need to give us (money) for each of these kids — to attend our school,’” he said.

Charters rejected by local districts can appeal to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, but that body has only approved three brand-new charter schools in four years, just one of them in the suburbs.

Not all charters looking to expand

The idea behind the federal grant was to get successful charters to open more schools and move to different areas of the state. But not all charters are looking to expand, said Elizabeth Shaw, CEO of Chicago International Charter Schools, one of the largest charter networks in the state, at one time running 16 campuses.

There’s a lot to operating a school that has nothing to do with teaching or learning, Shaw said, such as “funding and politics and district relations, and navigating the variety of operational and compliance requirements that it takes to run schools. So when you think about going to a new geography, you’re introducing a whole different set of players and a whole different set of challenges.”

That can distract from the main mission of creating strong schools, she said. Her network has been contracting, not growing. It gave up a campus it once ran in Rockford and closed a struggling school in Chicago.

Illinois is not the only state struggling to spend grant money meant for charter expansion as charter growth nationally has slowed.

Despite that, the state board of education said it has made some progress. In its grant report, the board of education touts its new website, where charter schools are no longer “buried within a list of other divisions within the agency.” It also has launched an outreach campaign to increase awareness of charter schools and what it describes as “the true definition of and need for school choice.”

Linda Lutton reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation.

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