By Peter Hancock
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – The state commission that oversees charter schools is set to be abolished next year while its powers and duties will be transferred to the Illinois State Board of Education.
That’s the result of Senate Bill 1226, sponsored by state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Aug. 23.
Charter schools are a unique and sometimes controversial kind of public school. They are generally set up for specific purposes such as focusing on college preparation, science and technology education, or serving students with special needs. Most are run by private, nonprofit organizations, but they operate within a public school district and receive public funding.
Under state law, organizations wanting to establish a charter school must apply for a charter through a local school district, which has the authority to grant the charter for a specified length of time or deny it.
There are 140 charter schools operating in Illinois, 126 of which operate within Chicago Public Schools, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Until 2011, charter applicants that were denied a charter by a local district could appeal to the Illinois State Board of Education.
In 2011, the General Assembly established the Illinois State Charter School Commission, an independent, appointed group within the State Board of Education that had authority to hear appeals and, if it deemed appropriate, reverse decisions of local districts.
Sean Denny, a lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in an interview there have been growing concerns about the commission in recent years because of the number of times it reversed decisions of local school boards.
In October 2017, for example, the commission reversed a decision by the Elgin Area School District to deny a charter for a national charter school organization that wanted to set up a math and science academy, despite the district’s concerns the new charter school would not be able to adequately serve low-income, at-risk, and non-English-speaking students.
The commission also has voted a number of times to reverse decisions of Chicago Public Schools, including a 2016 decision to reverse the Chicago school board’s decision to revoke a charter for the Betty Shabazz International Charter School.
“We support charter schools. We just want them opened and approved by local boards,” Denny said.
Under the new law, beginning July 1, 2020, the State Charter School Commission will cease to exist and the terms of its members will end. The Illinois State Board of Education will then inherit all of the powers and duties of the commission, including the power to reverse local board decisions, and it will take over responsibility for any charter school previously authorized by the commission.
The new law also provides that local districts may not “arbitrarily or capriciously revoke or not renew a charter,” and that decisions by the State Board of Education are subject to judicial review.
“This proposal is about ensuring local control and accountability for charter schools as they exist for public schools,” Holmes said Thursday in a news release. “The existing commission has overturned local school boards and I believe those decisions belong in the community, not at the state level.”