Senate votes to abolish state charter school commission

SHARE Senate votes to abolish state charter school commission

SPRINGFIELD — Reigniting a debate over the reach of charter schools, the Senate moved Friday to abolish a controversial state panel empowered to resurrect charter-school applications that had been rejected earlier by local school systems.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, passed the Senate 34-22 and now goes back to the House for possible action next week.

Her plan would abolish the State Charter School Commission, which Lightford said had become politicized in its primary function of deciding whether to overturn decisions by school boards that had rejected charter-school applications.

Under the legislation, that panel’s authority would shift to a newly created board to be impaneled by state schools Supt. Christopher Koch, with final decisions on rejected charter-school applications resting with the State Board of Education.

Lightford accused the commission of having worked with rejected applicants to strengthen their applications and thus help them open, which she maintained was not the purpose of the panel.

“We don’t need a charter school commission that’s trying to encourage more charter school applicants who have bad applications,” Lightford told her colleagues.

“You don’t want a bad school coming to your district. You don’t. If they don’t qualify, then you don’t want them in your school district. It’s unfair the city of Chicago is getting flooded with all these charter schools that aren’t performing,” Lightford said.

Lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn created the state charter commission in 2011. It was given the power to override local schools officials who reject applications for new charter schools and force taxpayers to fund charters that it allows to open. 

The commission exercised that power for the first time last year, clearing Des Plaines-based Concept Schools to open two new charter campuses that Chicago Public Schools officials had rejected.

The Sun-Times reported in December that Turkish-American nonprofit groups with ties to Concept Schools have hosted House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and many other Illinois lawmakers on trips to Turkey in recent years. 

And records show the state charter commission’s Springfield lobbyist is Liz Brown-Reeves  —  a former Madigan aide who accompanied lawmakers on their trip to Turkey in 2012.

A Madigan spokesman said in December that the speaker did not see any need to scrap the commission.  But Madigan abstained when the House voted 78-33 on an earlier version of the legislation in March. 

The proposal would put the commission out of business on July 1.

Since it came into being, the commission has received most of its funding from private organizations that frequently and heavily contribute to the charter-school cause. That included $200,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, linked to the founders of Wal-Mart. 

But many labor leaders and local school district officials have not been fans of the commission.

At the January meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said of the commission: “I will sit on that table with you, begging and screaming to get rid of that law. I bet you if we worked on that together, Springfield would respond.”

School Board President David Vitale replied, “Let’s join hands.”

A school district in Gurnee sued last week to reverse the commission’s recent decision to re-authorize the Prairie Crossing Charter School. Schools officials there alleged that the commission-approved charter campus siphons funding intended for the district’s “at risk” students to serve middle-class white or Asian children.

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