When Concept Schools Inc. wanted to open two charter schools in Chicago last year, it sought permission from Chicago Public Schools officials.
The answer was no.
CPS officials have allowed the rapid expansion of charters. But they turned down Concept. They said the charter operator, headquartered in Des Plaines, didn’t merit being allowed to expand based on test scores at its one city school, the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park.
Concept Schools appealed to a higher authority: the little-known Illinois State Charter School Commission. The state agency was created in 2011 by lawmakers including House Speaker Michael Madigan, the South Side Democrat who’s a powerful advocate of Concept and the faith-based Gulen movement to which the schools are connected.
This time, the answer was yes.
As the first, and so far only, charter operator to benefit from the decisions of the 2-year-old state agency, Concept is getting 33 percent more funding per pupil for those two new schools than the city school system gives other charters.
Madigan, who’s also the Illinois Democratic Party chairman, visited Concept’s Chicago Math and Science Academy last year. In a video the school posted on YouTube, Madigan praised the school, founded and run by Turkish immigrants.
The speaker’s son Andrew Madigan also visited and filmed an endorsement of the CMSA campus at 7212 N. Clark St. Andrew Madigan works for Mesirow Insurance Services Inc., whose clients include CMSA and the two new, state-approved Concept schools in McKinley Park and Austin, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The elder Madigan has ties to other Chicago Turkish immigrant groups that, like Concept, have connections to a worldwide movement led by cqFethullah Gulen. He’s a politically powerful Muslim cleric from Turkey who moved to this country in 1999 shortly before being implicated in a plot to overthrow Turkey’s secular rulers and install an Islamic government — charges that were later dropped.
Madigan has taken four trips in the past four years to Turkey as the guest of the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation — whose honorary president is Gulen — and the Chicago Turkish American Chamber of Commerce, according to disclosure reports the speaker has filed.
State records show Madigan’s visits were among 32 trips lawmakers took to Turkey from 2008 through 2012. The speaker and members of his House Democratic caucus took 29 of those trips, which they described as “educational missions.”
Turkey was the destination of 74 percent of all foreign trips Illinois legislators reported receiving as gifts during the five-year period.
On his weeklong trip to Turkey in November 2012, Madigan’s delegation included Liz Brown-Reeves, a former Madigan aide who lobbied for the state charter commission this year in Springfield.
The politicians and other guests on the trips have to pay for their travel to and from Turkey. Niagara and the Turkish chamber paid for meals and hotels, Madigan and the other legislators reported.
The Chicago Turkish chamber disbanded in February. Niagara vice president Mevlut “Hilmi” Cinar said his organization didn’t pay for the trips, that the costs were borne by non-governmental organizations in Turkey.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker paid for “all known expenses” for his travels. He still listed the four trips on his gift-disclosure statements because “there might be expenses that Niagara had that he was not aware of,” said Brown, who went with Madigan last year to Istanbul, Ankara and Ephesus.
Other politicians who toured Turkey on Niagara trips included Ald. Joe Moore (49th), whose ward includes the CMSA campus. Moore said he went twice at the urging of Concept’s vice president, Salim Ucan, though Cinar said Niagara didn’t authorize Ucan to extend invitations.
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Concept has run CMSA since 2004. It’s one of the 30 publicly financed, privately run schools Concept operates in six Midwest states. The organization recently applied to Chicago school officials to approve its fourth and fifth schols here to open next year, in South Chicago and Chatham.
Concept officials declined interview requests. In a written statement, Ucan said their “sole mission is to raise the bar of public education by opening high-quality college-prep charter schools in underserved communities.”
Last year, when Concept applied to open two more campuses in Chicago, CPS officials denied Concept, citing concerns over “fluctuations in its academic performance” in recent years and also because CMSA test scores didn’t outperform the average scores of schools in its section of the city by at least 10 percent — the benchmark CPS uses to decide whether current charter operators will be allowed to expand.
A spokeswoman said the Chicago Board of Education must “decline to approve weak and inadequate applications.”
But the state commission overruled the board and ordered the city school system to give higher per-pupil funding to the two new Concept schools.
Asked why, Jeanne Nowaczewski, the state commission’s executive director, said, “This organization runs really remarkable schools.”
She said the two new Concept schools “were approved in March, and, by July, they had waiting lists. Parents are smart consumers.”
Concept officials boast that 90 percent of the students at CMSA are accepted to colleges. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse, though, show 50 percent of CMSA graduates actually enroll in college, compared to the public school system’s average of 57 percent.
CMSA’s average ACT score of 19.1 is higher than the CPS average but below the 21.3 average considered a standard for college readiness.
Most of Concept’s schools are in Ohio, where the network was started. Of its 19 schools there, 12 were given D grades by state officials, 4 got C’s and 3 received B’s this year. Concept’s Indiana Math and Science Academy in Indianapolis got an F, according to state officials.
The Illinois charter commission’s decision to overrule CPS and allow the Concept schools in McKinley Park and Austin was made with the minimum five “yes” votes that were needed. Two commission members voted “no,” another was absent, and one spot was vacant then.
Glen Barton, retired chairman and chief executive of Caterpillar Inc., was among the commission members who voted yes. Barton is president of the board of a Peoria school that’s managed by Concept, but commission officials decided before the vote that Barton’s ties to Concept didn’t prevent him from voting on the plans.
Concept’s Peoria school had helped many low-income, minority students who otherwise were “destined to be on food stamps or be incarcerated,” Barton said.
More than half of the state charter commission’s budget has come from private contributions, Nowaczewski said. That includes $200,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, linked to the family of the founders of Wal-Mart, and $115,000 from the Joyce Foundation in Chicago. The groups are major financial backers of charter schools.
Though lawmakers allowed the state commission to seek private funding, state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, calls that situation “incestuous” and says it makes the panel partial to charter applicants. She has introduced legislation that would shut down the agency.
A CPS spokeswoman said “the current process creates confusion . . . and a fix is needed.”
Madigan spokesman Brown said “it doesn’t appear there was any effort” by Madigan to aid Concept’s successful appeal to the state charter panel and that the speaker doesn’t see a need to repeal the commission.