Chicago Sun-Times: Lawmakers, parents want state to reject $42M federal charter grant

http://chicago.suntimes.com/news-chicago/7/71/1119602/state-reject-42m-federal-charter-grants-hold-hearings-legislators-parents-say

By Lauren Fitzpatrick

November 20, 2015

State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Logan Square) wants hearings in Springfield to look at why the state pursued a $42 million federal grant to help open dozens more charter schools. | Sun-Times file photo

Struggling to pay for the schools it has, Chicago can’t afford another 24 charter schools even if they come with startup money, a group of legislators, parents and activists said Friday.

The speakers, organized by the parent group Raise Your Hand, encouraged the Illinois State Board of Education to reject a $42 million federal grant that would pay for research, marketing and some startup costs for up to 48 more charters statewide, half of them in Chicago over the next five years.

Though the grant appears to be tens of millions of free money entering the financially troubled state, they warned that the money to run those schools, once opened, would come from local districts that already are crying broke.

“We can’t meet our obligations today,” said State Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Jefferson Park), whose district includes Prussing Elementary School, home to a recent carbon monoxide incident resulting from an ancient boiler and an engineer the school can only afford to keep on a part-time basis. “Those children could have died because we cannot properly fund the nuts and bolts, let alone to have college counselors and teachers. This is the wrong decisions to make. It was made in an authoritarian manner.”

Illinois was awarded the U.S. Department of Education grants in September; it was one of eight states to receive grants out of 28 states that applied. Illinois can spend up to 15 percent of the money on sharing best practices from existing charters, and plans to hire four staff members.

The state currently has about 145 charters, 134 of them in Chicago. CPS plans to close three and possibly a fourth in June, citing poor performance.

With the federal funding, “ISBE currently anticipates that 24 new charter schools will open outside of Chicago over the next five years, and an additional 24 new charter schools will open in Chicago over this time period,” the state board wrote in its grant application.

Department spokeswoman Laine Evans said in a statement Friday that “ISBE is required by law to offer the money — once awarded — to start-up charter schools” using the state’s procurement process. “The program will help educate and empower school districts to consider the ways in which charter schools can support and encourage educational innovation, community partnerships and improved student outcomes.”

She also said that the state education board can’t open any schools itself – that power lies with local districts and then the governor’s appointed Illinois Charter Commission, which can overturn denials by local districts. Rejecting the money isn’t likely, given Gov. Bruce Rauner’s longtime support of charters; he has a charter school named for him.

Some, including the League of Women Voters of Chicago and a board member of East Aurora District 131, argued that the financial impact of charters on existing schools should be evaluated before adding more.

“No such evaluation was done when the state requested money for more charters for Chicago and for the rest of the state, and obviously expected that by asking for the money, these charters would be created,” said Nancy Brandt, the League’s board of directors.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Logan Square) said he’s calling for hearings in Springfield to include legislators who’ve been excluded from the conversation.

“The governor and state board proceeded with an application for a grant for over $40 million to open charters schools that our communities simply don’t want,” he said.

As for how to convince anyone to turn down grant money, Guzzardi said: “We have to remind them it’s just for today.”

Several speakers took their arguments to the meeting of the state education board, where chairman James Meeks said the state has to find a way to treat district-run and charter schools the same.

“If not, that’s why you have parents here and people who are suggesting there’s some clandestine effort to increase charters and then not hold them to the same standard,” he said. The he referred back to 2013: “Anytime you close 50 schools at one time and then in the same year you only close two low-performing charter schools, that’s why we have this problem we have to now navigate.”