Sunday, March 10, 2013

Educate Illinois School Districts about State Charter Schools and Support HB2660

Charter schools have gained much attention over the past decade, as many seem to think they could be a ‘silver bullet’ in education and make an enormous difference for children and families.  Certainly there are some outstanding charter schools, but at the same time there are also mostly average charters, relative to public schools, and some charters that under-perform compared to public schools. 

In Illinois, the normal process for creating a charter school includes a group presenting their proposal to a local School Board, and then allowing the School Board to vote either for or against allowing the charter school into the district.  If it is a yes vote, then the district works with the charter to arrange the finances for the charter school.  If it is a no vote, the charter group may take their proposal to other districts.  

However, over a decade ago, when a charter school was denied in Woodland School District 50 and Fremont District 79 (in the Gurnee area), a new law allowed the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to overturn the local School Board’s decision.  Not only did Woodland and Fremont have to allow Prairie Crossing Charter School (PCCS) to run in the district, but the financing formula stated that Woodland and Fremont had to fully pay for the charter school, using its general state aid (GSA) at a per capita cost.  

Today, some twelve years later, Woodland receives about $3.5 million in GSA for some 6600 K-8 students.  But it must then proceed to give $3.1 million to PCCS for only 330 students.  This is over $3 million that any other school district in the state of Illinois gets to keep for its annual budget, but that Woodland must somehow make up.  In the time PCCS has existed, Woodland has lost some $27 million! 

About a year and a half ago, more new legislation created the State Charter Commission, which has seven members appointed by the governor.  The ISBE used to have control of what I’ll call ‘state charter schools’ such as PCCS, but now the new commission has control.  The commission has said in the next decade, it would like to see as many as 100 of these charter schools across the state, where they have sole power to induce on any local school district if it sees fit.  This process has no oversight or control from local School Boards, the ISBE, or the state legislature! 

A second state charter school has been put into the Rich Township District 227 about two years ago, costing #227 multiple millions of dollars already.

Suppose your district spends $10,000 per student total in its budget.  For every 100 students that would attend a state charter school, that is $1 million your district would lose to the charter, and would have to make up.  In an era of already tight budgets, this is devastating to the educational budget of a local district.  

More are certainly on the way.  The issue is not necessarily whether or not one likes charter schools, because for some families this is beneficial, and that is great.  The issue is to change the funding formula so that it does not decimate local school district budgets! 
Hence Woodland, Fremont District 79, and Rich Township have a proposed bill in the Illinois House, HB2660, that changes funding from a per capita cost to the district, and instead take the percentage of state funds (revenue) that a district has in its budget and multiply that percentage by the number of students going to the charter school.  That will determine the amount of money the district would pay the charter school.  The rest would need to be paid by the state, through the GSA funding mechanism, since this new school was in fact created by the state – the state should have some ‘skin in the game’  to fund a school it alone is responsible for.

The two State charter schools that have been created in Illinois have already caused 3 districts to lose a combined $40 million dollars is General State Aid.  These funds are diverted to the state charter without your school district’s consent or ability to deny.
Woodland as well as the other two schools with State Charters located within their boundaries (Fremont Elementary District #79 and Rich Township #227) have fought the good fight expending thousands in legal fees to change how the charters are funded to no avail.  We have been advised by the ISBE (Illinois School Board of Education) that this issue requires a legislative solution. 

This is a crucial time to gain support for a change in how these charters are funded.  We believe HB 2660 may be a solution. 

The knowledge that the new State Charter Commission can add charters at will with absolutely no authority of the State legislature, Illinois School Board of Education or the Local Districts to deny the charter or control the funding is a ticking time bomb.  This opens up the door to anything from Virtual Charters to Home School Charters to drain what little State funding public schools receive.  With forecasts of 82% funding levels for General State Aid and 19% for State Transportation in FY14, the affected 3 districts will soon have no state funds left.

Presently, there is a group, Virtual Learning Solutions in St. Charles, that wants to set up a virtual school district, and may take 18 districts in the Fox Valley area to the State Charter Commission, trying to force the virtual school on these districts.  They would like to start this in the fall of 2013.  This means 18 more districts are at risk to lose large portions of their GSA to a charter district they do not want.  This will continue to affect potentially any public district in the state of Illinois. 

We need to educate school districts about this, and get them to ask local state representatives and state senators to support the HB2660 legislation that does not punish the local district alone when a charter school is created and forced on a local district by the State of Illinois.  With only 3 affected out of over 850 districts in the state, this is NOT on anyone's radar - but it needs to be.

Let your district school board and superintendent know about this issue.  If they agree it could be a financial impediment to the district budget, should a state charter school be forced on them, then ask them to contact the state rep and senator.