Legislation would loosen cap on new charter schools

Advocates for charter schools today celebrated legislation that would allow for 120 charter schools in Illinois, including 40 new ones in Chicago.

The legislation, passed by the state General Assembly over the weekend, doubles the existing state cap on charter schools and also includes new reporting requirements meant to raise accountability and transparency on their performance.

It must be signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, but its support in both houses of the Assembly indicates broad agreement on the changes. Political forces on often opposing sides of education issues call it a compromise, and federal pressure to expand charter schools gave state lawmakers an additional incentive to push it forward.

"Consensus politics" — that's what Elizabeth Evans, executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, called it today at a program to honor charter programs in Chicago.

"I would say that the defenders of the status quo are pretty tenacious, but at a certain point, the facts speak for themselves," Evans says. "Charters are working."

Evans refers primarily to teachers' unions, which have previously challenged the expansion of charter schools, where teachers rarely form organized-labor groups.

That dynamic has changed recently, as local, state and national unions have backed teachers trying to unionize at several Chicago charter schools.

Gail Purkey, spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says the legislation could make it easier for teachers at charter schools to unionize. 

She says new reporting requirements also compel charter schools to prove that they are more effective at improving academic performance than traditional public schools.

"It's a victory for everybody," she says. "What you have now is accountability and transparency for charters the same way public schools have accountability. There's no more wholesale, willy-nilly expansion of charters."

One goal of the legislation is to help traditional public schools replicate effective programs at charter schools, which are independently operated and exempt from some state laws and policies of the Chicago Board of Education.

Purkey says that is where charters have fallen short of their mission.

"They were supposed to be learning laboratories, with success taken back to traditional public schools, " she says. "That really hasn't been done."

Jesse Ruiz, who chairs the State Board of Education, disagrees. He says programs such as the Illinois Network's Charter Up help educators at traditional public schools learn how to implement successful programs from charter schools. They are an answer to concerns from policymakers who think charters are too insulated, he says.

"We're not keeping our light," Ruiz says. "We're shedding it."

Ruiz, who studied law under former University of Chicago professor Barack Obama, says the president's push for charter schools is helping children in communities where neighborhood schools are struggling. President Obama and former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, now the Secretary of Education, have called for expanding charter schools across the United States.

Such encouragement from the White House helped seal the legislation in Obama and Duncan's home state, the Illinois Network's Evans says.

"The federal incentive was helpful, certainly," she says.

Even with new requirements, charter schools are likely to face continued opposition from parents and teachers who have seen neighborhood schools close as new ones take their place. School closings, a byproduct of Chicago Public Schools' Renaissance 2010 initiative to launch new programs, have angered community members for years.

Josh Edelman, in charge of the district's Office of New Schools, says the new legislation reaffirms the mission of Renaissance 2010, launched in 2004.

"It's about birthing. It's not about closing," Edelman says. "It means that we have more options for Chicago's youth."

It also means more options for teachers such as Abby Rose, a faculty member at Namaste Elementary Charter School in the southwest area of Chicago. Rose teaches Peaceful People Tools, an emotionally and socially oriented dance-therapy program at the kindergarten-through-second-grade school.

"My job doesn't exist in another school," Rose says. "I'm not going to say it's better than anything else, but it's good. It's nice to have this option for people who believe in it."

One believer is parent Angela Walker-Brown, whose four children attend charter schools in Chicago.

"I see the growth in my children," Walker-Brown says. She says her daughter, a junior at Chicago International Charter School's Longwood campus, has shown significant improvement. "She struggled a lot. She's grown and she's blossomed as a student now versus at a regular public school."