ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Charters sprouting as seeds for change
by Frances Karanovich
Frances Karanovich, former superintendent at Macomb CUSD 185, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Some of us recall the weekly TV program, "Dragnet," and can still hear Detective Joe Friday say, "Just the facts, Ma'am … just the facts." School board members, whether veterans or newly elected, need the facts, just the facts, about Illinois charter schools — their past, their present and their future as "seeds for change" in Illinois' educational system.
In 1996, after two years of legislative debate, the Illinois General Assembly passed the first law authorizing Illinois charter schools as public schools of choice to "encourage educational excellence and promote new options."
In 2000, the Illinois State Board of Education titled the first Illinois Charter School Annual Report, "Illinois Charter Schools: Seeds for Change," a reference to a statement of support from the Large Unit District Association (LUDA) included in a report from the 1999 charter school hearings.
But from the first day the charter school law was enacted, the number of "seeds for change" and where those seeds could be sown to encourage educational excellence and new options was limited, and still is, by law.
The law caps the number of charters operating at any one time to 60, but goes beyond a total number cap by capping the geographic distribution of charter schools.
By state law, not more than 30 charters can operate at any one time in Chicago, not more than 15 in the counties surrounding Chicago and not more than 15 in the remainder of the state. The critical mass of Illinois charter schools is located in Chicago Public School District 299 (CPS), the largest school district in Illinois and the third largest district in the United States. While that provides multiple opportunities for students in Chicago, it is a fact that most families in Illinois do not have access to a charter school choice.
According to the latest ISBE statistics, 34 charters served 17,000 of the 2.1 million Illinois public school children. Natalie Weiss, director of school supports for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), pointed out that about 3.5 percent of total Chicago students attend a charter school and only 1 percent of Illinois children attend a charter school statewide, making expanded choices within the public school system a work in progress.
The maximum number of Illinois charters has not been reached, and the number of authorized charters continues to grow. Figure I and Figure II, compiled from ISBE Annual Charter School Reports in '04 and '08, show the growth of charter schools and the number of students attending them.
However, not all charters have been successful. During the 2007-08 school year, 35 charters operated and nine charters had terminated. Four ceased to operate with no reason given in the annual reports; four charters were revoked by the districts, and in one case, two campuses requested and received separate charters.
Some would say this is a good thing. If charters are not able to comply with the law or meet the goals established at the time the charter is authorized, they should close. Any Illinois farmer can tell you that not all seeds, even "seeds for change," mature and produce. Some die no matter how much work is invested.
Like public schools, charter schools cannot choose whom to educate. Enrollment is open to any pupil who resides within the geographic boundaries of the area served by the authorizing local school board.
The law does allow CPS to designate attendance boundaries for no more than one-third of the charter schools permitted in the city if the board of education determines that attendance boundaries are needed to relieve overcrowding or to better serve low-income and at-risk students. Students residing within an attendance boundary may be given priority for enrollment, but must not be required to attend the charter.
In fact, if too many students want to attend, the charter school must hold a lottery, giving all who wish to attend an equal opportunity for admission. During the 2006-07 school year, 27 of the 34 charters held a lottery and more than 10,000 students were not admitted to an Illinois charter school of their choice.
A charter school in Illinois can be authorized in one of three ways:
- By approval of the local school board,
- By referendum, or
- By ISBE, on appeal.
Thus far, according to ISBE principal consultant Jo Price, the referendum option has only been used once and was not successful. No charter or renewal decision is effective without state board certification that it meets all requirements of the law.
ISBE does have the authority but rarely grants a charter denied by a local school district. In the past decade, the state board has granted only two charters overriding denials by local school districts: Thomas Jefferson School's charter in Des Plaines that lapsed at the end of the 2003-04 school year when the school failed to comply with requirements for re-charter consideration; and Prairie Crossing in Lake County, the 2007 National Charter School of the Year.
Essentially, the authority in Illinois to grant or deny a proposed charter rests with the local school board.
Michael D. Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, confirmed that IASB supported the original charter school law because they believed in local control and the charter school bill provided an opportunity to bypass many ISBE rules.
But IASB was neutral on the 1997 amendment to the law that gave ISBE the authority to override local boards and authorize a charter.
"The state board indicated they would be very selective about reversing local school board decisions," Johnson said. "This has proven to be true. IASB still believes in local control and that local school districts should make decisions about their local schools rather than one set of guidelines mandated to all schools regardless of size or need."
Some charter school advocates feel giving this much "power" to local school boards provides for a weak charter school law, limiting the growth of charter schools.
"Outside of Chicago, charter schools in Illinois have been hamstrung to a far greater degree than charter schools elsewhere in the country," said Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, a former legislator and current school board member in Quincy SD 172. "Setting them up is unbelievably difficult, with both local school boards and unions generally opposed to the creation of what is typically viewed as competition, both financially and academically, in their community."
INCS' Weiss agreed. "The fact that charter organizers are required to submit their proposal to the local board of education as the authorizing decision maker is one of the weaknesses of the Illinois charter school authorization process," she said. "The INCS is working to resolve this weakness as a policy priority."
To date, the law still requires a local board decision or a referendum before ISBE can consider authorizing a charter.
Governance and autonomy
A charter school in Illinois is administered and governed by a board of directors or other governing authority, not an elected board of education like traditional public schools. No mention is made in the School Code of how this board or governing body should be selected. It is, however, subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, but otherwise has the autonomy to govern as outlined in the school's approved charter.
A charter school is required to comply with all health and safety requirements applicable to public schools under Illinois state law. It cannot charge tuition, but may charge reasonable fees, like any other public school, for textbooks, instructional materials and student activities.
In Illinois, each charter school is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation responsible for the management and operations of its fiscal affairs, including the preparation of its budget and an annual audit of its finances. (For additional information on charter school finances, see John Hunt's article on page 28.)
While Illinois charter schools must comply with the intent of all provisions of the Charter School Law, they are exempt from all other state laws and regulations in the School Code governing public schools and local school board polices except those dealing with criminal history and sex offender records checks, discipline of students, the Tort Immunity Act, the Abuse and Neglected Children's Reporting Act, and School Report Card requirements.
In addition, charter schools are not exempt from any civil rights laws or any federal special education requirements. No state can offer these exemptions.
Part of the flexibility of charter schools is the freedom to select their own school calendar, hours of operation, and grades or ages they wish to serve. Illinois charter schools have autonomy in eight areas:
- To design curriculum independent from the school district;
- To set educational priorities;
- To set unique school and school year schedules;
- To manage fiscal affairs independent of the school district;
- To set employee compensation rates and/or to provide bonuses;
- To contract with external providers: janitorial services; music, art and gym; social workers; mental health services; nursing staff; special education services; and youth guidance; and,
- To design different, additional performance standards.
In exchange for this flexibility and autonomy, Illinois charter schools face increased accountability to achieve benchmarks, such as student achievement and graduation rates, established at the time the charter is granted.
Charter performance is evaluated by the authorizing entity at the end of the charter granting period or every five years, whichever is shorter. In addition to being accountable to the authorizing entity, charter schools are required to submit an annual report to ISBE, which publishes a report available at http://www.isbe.net/charter/Default.htm.
Mission and curriculum
Each ISBE annual report on charter schools since January 2000 has provided a brief description of each school that operated in the preceding school year. For example, in the 1998-99 school year, sample descriptors included:
- The Academy of Communications and Technology (ACT) designed to prepare students for careers in communications and computer technology;
- The Springfield Ball Charter School sponsored by the Ball Foundation of Glen Ellyn, which has a theme of literacy and numeracy, operates an extended school year, and offers Spanish language instruction for all grades as an integral part of the curriculum; and
- The Youth Connection Charter School, an alternative program operating at 26 sites throughout Chicago serving high school age youth who often have been out of school for months and sometimes years.
Because every charter is authorized with mission, curriculum and accountability goals established in the individual charter, they are sometimes referred to as "niche" schools.
Charter schools in Illinois are accountable to their constituency (parents and students), their governing board and the chartering board of education at the time of charter renewals.
Without the support of their constituency, charter schools close for lack of students. Without the support of their governing board, they will close for lack of leadership and support.
And, without compliance with the contract accountability standards established at the time the charter contract is approved, the charter will not be renewed.
Part of the accountability that allows charter schools to have "unique" offerings and be released from some state mandates is the responsibility to produce academically successful students. The state board compiles annual evaluations that compare the performance of charter school pupils with the performance of ethnically and economically comparable groups of pupils in other neighborhood public schools who are enrolled in academically comparable courses.
Each report compares how the charter school's academic performance on the mandated state tests compares with the academic performance of the traditional public school district within which the charter operated. The first such state report found:
Some charter schools are doing better than similar grades in their home school districts; others are not doing as well. No single generic statement about the 13 charter schools that completed 1998-1999 is appropriate.
A three-year evaluation of Illinois charter schools issued in 2002 summarized charter school student achievement data from the Illinois Standards Assessment Test, the Prairie State Achievement Exam, the American College Test and Iowa Test of Basic Skills for Chicago schools. On the ISAT, PSAE and ACT, charter schools performed at or just below the level of demographically similar schools. On the ITBS, charter schools performed higher on average than schools students would have otherwise attended.
The 2004 annual report compared ISAT meets/exceeds percentages for the 17 operating charters and their authorizing districts during 2000-03. "ISAT results of charter schools in Chicago are mixed," it said. "This is consistent with the results from last year." The report also mirrors the "mixed" performance of charter schools in relation to their home district averages on ISAT and PSAE tests in the rest of the state.
The 2004-05 CPS Charter School's Performance Report lists numerous "signs of success" for Chicago's charter schools, noting they consistently out-perform their comparison neighborhood schools on several measures including ITBS scores and graduation rates. This report highlights that all eight Chicago charter high schools reported higher graduation rates than their comparison neighborhood schools.
The 2007 ISBE report provides the 2005-06 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) results for charter schools and local districts. Once again, the performance for charter schools compared to the "sending" districts is mixed. However, in 2007 charter schools were performing at a higher level of achievement than the sending districts both in Chicago and outside of Chicago districts.
The recently published "Rand Technical Report: Achievement and Attainment in Chicago Charter Schools" states:
"Students who transfer experience rates of achievement growth that do not differ substantially in CPS schools and charter schools … . However, the analysis of the attainment effects of Chicago's charter high schools … in contrast, breaks new ground and suggests positive effects for the average charter eighth-grader who continues in a charter high school. … For charter eighth-graders in Chicago, continuing into a charter high school appears to increase ACT scores, improve the probability of graduating by 7 percentage points, and improve the probability of enrolling in a college by 11 percentage points … . The results here demonstrate that educational program and policy evaluations would do well to examine outcomes that go beyond scores on state assessments."
Test results and an analysis such as the above study provide evidence that charter schools, at least charter high schools in Chicago, are impacting a change in graduation rates, college entry rates and increased ACT scores.
Seeds for change
Ben Schwarm, IASB associate executive director for governmental relations, has been involved in the discussion since the law was debated, passed and the first charter school was authorized, serving as a lobbyist for the Illinois School Statewide Management Alliance. When asked whether he feels that charter schools have indeed acted as "seeds for change," he stated:
"We believe they are 'seeds for change' but we must now recognize which changes are successful and apply those to more schools and schools districts. That was certainly the intent of the original charter schools law … . Our hope was that with the creation of the charter schools on the pilot project basis (first 45 charters, now 60 charters), we could watch and learn from schools that were operating without some of the state restrictions that 'regular' public schools must operate under. The next step would then be to remove those state mandates from all public school districts. This step has yet to happen in Illinois."
Jaime Guzman, director of new projects in CPS' office of new schools, uses Chicago's North Lawndale Charter School as one example of how unique offerings and choice have impacted change.
In an area where the number of charter schools has reached its legislated cap, traditional public schools, once failing, are now showing improved academic achievement. While he could not directly say the charter schools were the only thing impacting improved achievement because of additional supports offered to this neighborhood, he feels charter schools are serving as seeds for change there and in other places in CPS.
"It's happening," Guzman said.
According to educational researchers Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson, authors of What's Public about Charter Schools in 2002, there are considerable obstacles to the diffusion of educational practices from charter to non-charter schools. They note the "diffusion of practices can come about either through a collegial process of collaboration or a competitive process."
Collegial efforts to collaborate and communicate appear to be growing. Guzman's office provides opportunities for new schools to meet and discuss successes. Charter high school principals meet with members of the CPS post-secondary staff who take the innovations and successes into traditional neighborhood public high schools and charter schools, and are sharing newsletters and inviting community members into charter schools.
CPS' Guzman said he feels charter schools have been seeds for change and that they spurred the city's Renaissance 2010 initiative, which seeks to increase the number of high quality educational options in Chicago. Yet, he acknowledged that more deliberate documentation needs to occur.
Chicago Public Schools have employed a "slow growth, high quality" strategy to implementing charter schools, according to a 2005 report by Robin Lake and Lydia Rainey, "Chasing the Blues Away: Charter Schools Scale Up in Chicago." But given the state's cap, most of the 100 new schools in the Renaissance 2010 initiative will not be charter schools. They will be contract schools that replicate the district's charter school successes.
Those CPS charters that opened before 2003 and met certain criteria are eligible to apply to expand to additional campuses that do not count against the cap on new charters.
Unless the law is amended and Chicago is allotted additional charters, the contract, magnet and/or performance schools of the Renaissance 2010 initiative will have to do. Chicago has no more charters to authorize.
The market-driven, competitive means of Illinois charter schools serving as seeds for change may be evident in CPS where traditional local public schools are competing for students and in some cases, competing for their continued existence. But such market-based competition is not evident outside of CPS. The number of charters and the number of students attending charter schools has not reached the critical mass requiring local school districts outside of Chicago to compete for students to maintain their existence.
The successes of charter schools throughout the state are proclaimed on the Illinois Network of Charter Schools website, "Charter Up! Roadmaps to Innovation," which also provides a school-to-school mentoring initiative, but to date, no formal research study designed to measure the impact of Illinois charter schools on traditional public neighborhood schools has been published. As IASB's Schwarm said, "This is yet to happen."
Future of Illinois charter schools
In New Schools for a New Century: The redesign of urban education (1997), educational researchers Diane Ravitch and J.P. Viteritti concluded that the crystal ball was still cloudy on the future of charter schools.
On one hand, strong charter school legislation is at the top of many legislators' educational reform agendas, and the number of charter schools — and their success stories — continues to grow nationally.
On the other, opposing forces are powerful, and many charter school operators are weary of the challenge of overcoming the barriers inherent in operating a highly accountable school while battling opposition.
Meanwhile, the number of charter schools in Illinois continues to grow. The 2008-09 school year saw four new charter schools open their doors: Henry Ford Power House Academy and Amandla Charter School in Chicago, Youthbuild McLean County Charter High School in Normal and Beardstown Charter High School.
Rich Loman, an ISBE principal educational consultant, also reports receiving charter school inquiries from the Rockford, Peoria and Joliet school districts, some of the largest districts outside of Chicago.
Why the interest just outside of Chicago? Because, as this school year began, CPS had authorized all 30 of its charters allowed by law.
Based on the past decade of growth, success stories of charters meeting their goals, and the current interest from around the state, the future of charter schools in Illinois would seem promising. The promise of system-wide improvement due to charter schools relies on either formal dissemination of information of successful practices and collaboration between districts and charters or indirect market-driven changes.
Opposition from politically powerful stakeholders creates barriers to either type of change. The former relies on collaborative relationships between districts and charters. The CPS example indicates that when collaboration does occur, systemic changes follow.
The latter, market-driven change can only occur when there is a critical mass of charter schools stimulating competition for students. In Illinois, this may be occurring in CPS, but the lack of charter schools elsewhere means that this type of competition is absent.
Charter school detractors still carry political weight. Teacher union opposition to charter schools, political pressures on state legislators and the recent demise of all proposed Illinois charter school law legislative amendments keep the crystal ball on the future of Illinois charter schools cloudy.
The fact is, charter schools are here to stay, but how many and where future charter schools will be located is unknown.
Kevin Booker, Brian Gill, Ron Zimmer, and Tim R. Sass, "Achievement and Attainment in Chicago Charter Schools," Technical Report, Santa Monica, California, The Rand Corporation
"Chicago Public Schools Annual Performance Reports," 2007, retrieved July 3, 2008, from
Chicago Public Schools Annual Performance Reports last retrieved July 5, 2008, from http://www.ren2010.cps.k12.il.us/docs/2004-2005_Performance_Report.pdf
Chicago School Alliance webpage retrieved June 30, 2008, from http://chicagoschoolsalliance.org/.
Illinois Network of Charter Schools, retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://www.incschools.org.
Illinois Network of Charter Schools, Map of Illinois Schools, retrieved March 18, 2007, from http://www.incschools.org/find_a_charter_school_illinois.asp.
Illinois State Board of Education Directories, retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://www.isbe.net/research/htmls/directories.htm
Illinois Charter School Annual Report, ISBE, Springfield, Illinois, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008
Illinois Charter Schools Law, 2007, retrieved March 4, 2008, from www.isbe.state.il.us/charter/
ISBE QUICKSTATS 2007 retrieved July 9, 2008, from http://www.isbe.net/research/pdfs/quickstats_2007.pdf
Illinois Network of Charter Schools, retrieved March 1, 2008, from http://www.incschools.org
Illinois Network of Charter School Road Maps, retrieved July 6, 2008, from http://www.incschools.org/roadmaps.html
Robin Lake and Lydia Rainey, "Chasing the Blues Away: Charter Schools Scale Up in Chicago," Progressive Policy Institute, Project Report (www.ppionline.org) 2005
Christopher Lubienski, "Educational Innovation and Diversification in School Choice Plans," 2008, on-line policy brief retrieved June 18, 2008, from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/EPSL-20080803-259-EPRU.pdf
Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson, "What's Public About Charter Schools? Lessons Learned About Choice and Accountability," California, Corwin Press Inc., 2002
Christopher Nelson and Gary Miron, "The Evaluation of the Illinois Charter School Reform Final Report," Kalamazoo, Michigan, Western Michigan University Evaluation Center, 2002
Prairie Crossing Charter School website, retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://www.pccs.lake.k12.il.us/index.asp
Diane Ravitch and J.P. Viteritti, New schools for a new Century: The redesign of urban education, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997
Renaissance 2010 retrieved July 5, 2008, from http://www.ren2010.cps.k12.il.us/
"Supporting Charter School Excellence through Quality Authorizing: Innovations in Education," prepared by Public Impact and WestEd for U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement, Washington, D.C., 2007
CUSD 300 supportive of unique charter school
by Allison L. Smith
In recent years, Community Unit School District 300 has enjoyed its share of innovation, whether in its groundbreaking Freedom of Information Act online program or its pursuit of windmill-generated electricity. D300's charter school experience is the newest chapter of innovation.
Located in the rapidly growing northwest suburbs of Chicago, D300 rides a swath of southeastern McHenry County and northern Kane County stretching into 15 towns, including the village of Pingree Grove. This once tiny community has grown more than 1,000 percent in the past three years, from about 200 residents to nearly 2,000.
That boom has been driven largely by residential development from Cambridge Homes. In 2005, to offset the impact on local schools, Cambridge Homes proposed building a charter school within its large Cambridge Lakes subdivision. The D300 Board of Education approved the proposal after intense dialogue about the potential impact of the school.
The board sought assurance that a proven curriculum would be used. After all, the board remained responsible for ensuring that D300 charter students received a quality education. Charter students would eventually enroll in other D300 schools, whether by transfer or matriculation, and they must be academically prepared for this transition.
When the Cambridge Lakes Learning Center (CLLC) charter agreement was executed between D300 and the Northern Kane Educational Corporation (NKEC — the non-profit organization that runs the charter school), the community approached the implementation with a great sense of excitement and a bit of anxiousness as well.
Board members, administrators, families and the media all looked forward to seeing what would come of the first developer-backed charter school in the state. It was a case study in the making, an unfolding page in the story of public education.
The school entered new territory in being perhaps the first Illinois charter school in a purposefully designed facility, rather than in a preexisting structure. Open to K-8 students from across the district, the CLLC provided no student transportation and no Spanish language instructional services. But for some, it did provide an intriguing alternative to the traditional education setting.
D300 agreed to allow impact fees collected from area developers to be channeled to the charter school and, in doing so, helped provide start-up capital. NKEC briefly struggled to obtain supplemental private financing, but the CLLC opened in fall 2007 with a beginning enrollment of 521 students. This year, its enrollment dropped more than 20 percent, to 411 students in a school designed to eventually accommodate up to 1,000 students.
Under Illinois law governing charter schools, the district in which the charter is located pays the charter school a per-pupil amount, based on the district's average cost of serving a student in the grades served. D300 opted to augment that funding by paying the average D300 cost per student in grades K-12 although the charter school serves only grades K-8.
In 2008-09, all CLLC teachers are using D300's student information system — Infinite Campus — to track attendance, behavior and state reporting information. This represents progress as the CLLC did not use the system during its first year and was out of compliance on several issues with the state. Another sign of progress is that the school recently hired a data and testing coordinator.
From the beginning, D300 worked closely with CLLC leadership to build and maintain a rapport that benefited students. Board member Monica Clark's children attend the charter school, and she has voluntarily served as a liaison between the board and the school.
Similarly, a D300 principal serves on the NKEC board of directors to facilitate communication and support structures. District staff meets quarterly with charter staff to handle special education, state reporting, compliance issues, student information and other topics as needed.
Despite this healthy partnership, issues that arose over the past 14 months were sometimes complicated by the right of the charter school to independently manage its own programs. The public, and sometimes the media, had difficulties differentiating the charter school and its separate governance structure from the rest of D300.
When there was good news to share, the public wasn't always sure whom to congratulate. Conversely, when the charter school generated "bad press" over a perceived lack of communication and unionization efforts, the ink soaked all of D300. And no matter how often Joe Stevens, board president, and Superintendent Ken Arndt respectfully reiterated that this was a choice school with parents in the power seat, some members of the CLLC population pushed D300 to "do more."
D300 faced thorny questions such as: Where exactly does the buck stop? Who must answer a Freedom of Information Act request about a charter school if the request was addressed to the district? Is it ever appropriate for a district to intervene in the management style of a charter school? Should the district provide publicity for a charter school? What level of special education services should a charter school provide?
In the past year, Superintendent Arndt has frequently passed along public feedback to Larry Fuhrer, NKEC president.
"There isn't a week that goes by that someone doesn't share with me their opinion about the charter school," Arndt said. "They either love it or have other opinions. For most people, it comes down to personal ideologies."
Allison L. Smith is communications supervisor for Community Unit School District 300 in Carpentersville, Illinois.
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