Charter commission out, but private-school scholarships retained
Controversial panel will no longer overrule local school districts
By Ted Cox
Charter schools took a hit, but private schools found a controversial scholarship program retained in the flurry of activity on education issues in the General Assembly last weekend.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved a bill that would end the State Charter School Commission and sent it to Gov. Pritzker for his signature.
The charter commission proved irritating for advocates of public education and neighborhood schools. The Chicago Board of Education in particular ruled several times against proposed charter schools, only to have those schools’ backers appeal to the commission, which was more receptive.
According to Chicago Public Radio’s WBEZ 91.5-FM, since 2011 the commission overruled local school districts a dozen times to approve charter schools, eight of those in Chicago. The Chicago Board of Education repeatedly complained that it was compelled to fund those schools, while the state commission oversaw their administration, making the local board pay the bills while having no say in operations.
The General Assembly sent a bill abolishing the commission to then-Gov. Rauner last year, but as an avowed supporter of charters — including one named for him by the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago — he vetoed it. Pritzker was expected to sign it.
According to Chalkbeat, an education-oriented news outlet, the bill will abolish the nine-member commission by July 2020. The State Board of Education will assume administration of the schools the commission has approved and initial appeals in the future, but from then on any charter schools denied will have to take their case to court.
Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin applauded the move, saying, “We believe the duties of the commission can be better managed by the Illinois State Board of Education, and also we strongly believe locally elected school boards and their communities should have the final say on whether or not a charter school is established in their area.”
“We strongly believe locally elected school boards and their communities should have the final say on whether or not a charter school is established in their area.”
IEA President Kathi Griffin (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
The grassroots group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education backed the bill ending the commission and called it “a major improvement over the current policy.”
Pritzker, however, went back on a campaign promise to halt a controversial state program providing tax credits for scholarships to private schools — a $100 million program approved two years ago as a concession to Rauner to get him to sign the bill altering the state’s education funding formula. The program also had the support of the Catholic Church and Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich.
According to ‘BEZ, the program gives a 75 percent tax credit on private-school scholarships up to $1.3 million. The station reported that of 7,000 scholarships awarded under the program last year, 5,000 went to low-income students, but critics complained that — like charters — they drained money from public education. Pritzker had planned to cut its budget in half on the way to phasing out the pilot program, but he agreed to retain it in budget negotiations last week “as long as the state funnels at least $350 million in new dollars into K-12 funding each year,” ‘BEZ reported.
Raise Your Hand labeled it a “neo-voucher” program, but likewise welcomed the additional $350 million in statewide education funding.
The IEA was similarly understanding. “We know that our governor is a friend of education, and we know that he’s committed to ending the school tuition voucher program,” Griffin said. “Gov. Pritzker managed to get a lot done this legislative session, including several big initiatives for education. He helped ensure we have additional funding for K-12, higher ed, and our community colleges. We also saw legislation implementing a $40,000 minimum teacher salary and the $15 minimum wage, which will begin to help our education support professionals earn a living wage. On top of all that, we also saw the 6 percent teacher salary threshold restored and the 3 percent repealed, ensuring that our educators will be able to be fairly compensated throughout the longevity of their careers. Additionally, the legislature approved $50 million for the Monetary Award Program, which will provide much-needed financial relief for our college students.”
Yet Griffin also insisted that didn’t put the matter to rest. “We will continue having discussions with Gov. Pritzker regarding our concern with the school tuition voucher program,” she said. “This program is not subject to open-record laws, so we don’t know how the money is being spent in real time. We won’t know how effective the program is, and we also won’t know why some children got scholarships and others didn’t. What’s really alarming is the size of Illinois’s program. Our start-up program is bigger than any other start-up in any other state. We’re talking about $75 million worth of taxpayer money that’s involved. We believe all students, regardless of where they live, deserve the support, tools, and time to learn. Adequately resourced public schools that provide a quality education to all students are our best bet for setting every student in Illinois off toward a great future, not vouchers.”
The House passed a bill allowing Chicago to elect its Board of Education — it’s the only district in the state with an appointed board — but it stalled in the Senate after new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot raised concerns. She likewise supported an elected school board on the campaign trail, but took issue with the bill’s provision to create a 21-member board, which she called unwieldy. Lightfoot also supported an end to the charter commission as a candidate.