Progress Illinois: Federal Grant Stirs Debate Over Charter Schools In Illinois

http://www.progressillinois.com/posts/content/2015/11/20/federal-grant-stirs-debate-over-charter-school-expansion-illinois

Ellyn Fortino

November 20th, 2015

The debate over charters schools is heating up in Illinois. Advocates on both sides of the issue are speaking out about a five-year, $42 million federal grant Illinois won in September to support the creation of new public charter schools.

Illinoisans are sounding off on a competitive federal grant the state recently won to support charter school development in the state.

A coalition of Illinois parents, community groups, school board members and elected officials urged the administration Friday to reject the five-year, $42 million grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to Illinois in late September.

The grant, for which the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) applied in July, could result in the opening of 48 new charter schools in Illinois, including 24 in Chicago and 24 elsewhere in the state, coalition members said. They argued that an expansion of charter schools, which are independently run but receive public money, would take away resources from already cash-starved Illinois public schools. Coalition members also claimed ISBE's process to apply for the grant was "undemocratic" and lacked input from the public.

"Gov. Rauner and the State Board of Education quietly made top-down decisions for children and communities around the state of Illinois, decisions which will have a serious and profound impact on our education system," said Joy Clendenning with the Raise Your Hand education coalition, one of several organizations represented at today's press conference.

"There was no debate, no discussion, not even a letter to the legislature when the Illinois State Board of Education, ISBE, decided that Illinois should have 48 more charter schools, half for Chicago and half for the rest of the state," she added. "At a time when Illinois fails to fund their existing schools adequately and equitably, when many schools across the state are starving for resources, we're here to say no to this charter expansion that comes with federal dollars for partial startup, but nothing to run the schools once they're open."

Elected officials at the press conference included state Reps. LaShawn Ford, Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) and Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) as well as Chicago Ald. David Moore (17th) and Cook County Clerk David Orr.

"I'm standing here to demand that we reject this money, that we not mortgage the long-term future of our traditional public schools for the sake of startup costs for these charters," Guzzardi said. "I hope that we'll be able to have hearings on this issue in Springfield. I hope that the governor and Rev. Meeks and the other members of the State Board of Education will come before those hearings and discuss this issue with us. I urge every school board that is faced with a proposal for these new charters to reject them."

Representatives from the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago League of Women Voters, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Northern Illinois Jobs for Justice and other groups were also at the press conference.

ISBE issued a statement in response to critics of the grant:

ISBE could never do what is being suggested in this release. ISBE is required by law to offer the money - once awarded - to start-up charter schools through sub-grants that are decided based on a highly regulated and competitive state procurement process.
This procurement process is governed strictly by the state procurement code to ensure transparency and fairness. 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.
It will build on ISBE's current initiatives to help all schools promote academic excellence by providing equitable options for all students to ultimately close the achievement gap.

The grant funds, according to ISBE, will be used for the planning, program design and initial implementation of charter schools. ISBE expects to release a request for proposals, or RFP, for sub-grants later this fall. 

Illinois was one of eight states to win the "State Educational Agency" grant from the federal government for charter school development, ISBE said. That fact demonstrates the strength of the charter movement in the state, said Jelani McEwen, director of external affairs at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

The grant will help "empower local communities to get active in the charter movement in a way that maybe didn't exist before," McEwen said. He explained that local community organizations interested in opening charter schools could get assistance with drafting their school proposals as part of the grant.

"If we're interested in seeing new models and new types of schools and constituencies being brought into this process, and to improve access for all people to this model, this grant is going to really empower them," McEwen said.

Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand voiced concerns over potential uses of the grant money.

The grant, she said, could finance charter school promotional efforts to "convince communities who might have no opinion about charter schools to put them in their neighborhood."

"A lot of the money isn't even for anything in the school itself but more for the promotion and growth through individuals to do the work of selling the charter school movement," she said. 

Speaking generally about the grant, McEwen called it "unconscionable for anyone to oppose additional resources for public schools when those resources are needed the most."

"There is new money available to help communities all over this state open up schools that can meet the needs of people that work there, and I don't see how anyone can argue against that right now effectively," he said. 

Coalition members stressed the point that the federal grant provides only startup funding for charters, meaning school districts would be on the hook to pay for their operations once they open.

"Charters opening in communities that aren't requesting them would be distracting money, support for traditional schools in those communities, and if those local communities and school boards can't make that decision themselves for their own voters, then we just think it's a questionable policy," John Cusick with the Illinois Federation Teachers said at Friday's press conference. "It drains resources from traditional schools. What we've seen in Chicago is death by a thousand cuts to neighborhood schools, opening the charters, and they don't necessarily benefit from more resources either."