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House nixes union-backed bid to weaken state charter school panel

SPRINGFIELD–After a racially charged, hour-long debate over weakening a state charter schools panel, the House voted down union-backed legislation Wednesday to give more power to local school districts to veto charter-school applications.

The plan pushed by Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, would block the state Charter School Commission from overturning a charter-school application that had previously been rejected by a local school board – unless voters in the affected school district approved the charter school by referendum.

Her legislation, House Bill 4237, failed on a 54-55 roll call. Sixty votes were needed for passage. After the vote, she kept her legislation alive through a parliamentary maneuver, leaving open the chance for another vote.

“This is actually a pro-charter bill,” Chapa LaVia told colleagues. “If the school board denies or accepts a charter coming in, the citizens paying property taxes have the ability to revoke that.”

Supporters of her legislation included the state’s three major teacher unions and the Illinois School Management Alliance. But the legislation was opposed by charter school advocates, like the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, Advance Illinois and Stand for Children.

Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, who voted against her plan, derided Chapa LaVia’s push as just another attempt to “hijack charter schools.”

“You say you’re not against charter schools, Linda, but everyone’s telling me there’s a new Grinch of charter schools in the General Assembly,” Arroyo said, alluding to several union-backed bills she has introduced that would curtail the growth and influence of charter schools in Illinois.

Chapa LaVia boasted to Arroyo that she’s been in the legislature 11 years and that she knows education “more than a majority of people in this chamber,” including him. She said his charter-school-Grinch allegation was “complete and utter bogus,” and she just wanted to give voters a voice on whether they want a charter school in their area.

“If they want something different than what they have, they should have the ability to get that because they pay for the school,” she said.

RELATED: Chapa LaVia apologizes for ‘minorities’ remark

Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, sprung to Chapa LaVia’s defense by citing a Chicago Sun-Times report Monday that found little evidence in standardized test results that charter schools are performing better than traditional schools operated by Chicago Public Schools.

“The news is that when we hear people applauding that charter schools are so much better, it doesn’t prove by the research to be true,” Davis said. “The goal of our committee chairman is not trying to get rid of charter schools, not to divide local decision-making, but to strengthen the educational opportunity of those who choose the charter school route.”

But, Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, who voted against it, called the Chicago Sun-Times report “politicized” and that discussion of the study launched the debate into the “theater of the absurd.”

“What I’m hearing is a bunch of folks trying to scapegoat charter schools,” Mitchell said. “Right now, what is currently being advocated is an idea that basically we should start nitpicking in schools as if somehow we govern everything we do in schools by the supposed mandate of local control.”

In her closing statement of the debate, Chapa LaVia turned to the Democratic side of the chamber and shouted, “Listen to me minorities! I’m over here because we’re all over on this side, right?”

The whole chamber broke into an uproar over Chapa LaVia’s assertion that only minorities sit on the Democratic side of the aisle in the House. State Rep. John Anthony, R-Plainfield, is African American.

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, called out Chapa LaVia.

“When I represent 108,000 people, it’s a very diverse group,” Reboletti said. “I don’t think that’s very fair, representative, what you did. That’s terrible. I don’t believe that was professional or civil. I’m extremely disappointed in that type of reaction.”

After her bill was shot down, Chapa LaVia expressed regret for her actions.

“I apologize, but the frustrating thing is we’re here for the children—not an association, not a hidden agenda—we’re here for the children of the state of Illinois,” she said. “And what’s frustrating is we have outside powers putting things in people’s heads that aren’t 100 percent true.”