Charter school laws are complicated and, in some states, unwieldy, but one of the linchpins of new charter school legislation proposed last week by Gov Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland, is a state-level commission that could overrule any decisions about charter schools made by local boards of education.
Charter school networks and organizers in Illinois, our other “home” state, have such a commission, known as the Illinois State Charter School Commission, chaired now by DeRonda Williams of Chicago. Ms Williams is, according to her LinkedIn profile, a finance professional with over 20 years of financial management and business experience and eight years of experience in education reform. She says she’s “a results-oriented professional with a unique combination of strategic, operational, and financial leadership.”
The people of Illinois have been simultaneously supportive and critical of the commission. When the SCSC upheld a decision by School District U-46, based in Elgin, to deny a charter for one school in 2014, the commission received great praise as a group that was able to see the deficiencies of a bad charter proposal. The group that organized that charter school, known as the Elgin Charter School Initiative, submitted a completely reworked proposal to the U-46 board last week, hoping it will be approved this time.
A new team of parents, volunteers, and professionals from assorted fields came up with a draft proposal that still focuses on K-8 math and science, but the school would now be equipped with better facilities for at-risk students, including those in special education programs, English learners, and those from low-income and minority families. “We met with every single school board member,” founding board President Kerry Kelly told the Daily Herald. “We feel pretty good with what we’ve proposed.”
But the commission has also been sharply criticized, not really for any decision it has made but for the authority it has in dictating what local school districts can and can’t do.
For example, the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley tried to establish an online charter school in 2013 across 18 school districts in Chicago’s western and far-western suburbs. All 18 democratically elected boards of education denied the charter, saying it wasn’t good for students in the district. The SCSC could have overruled them but didn’t.
“At its core we have in front of us a substandard application to provide a program that has, itself, proved to be substandard,” the Daily Herald quoted one Naperville District 203 board member as saying. “I also wonder how an organization that could not rouse itself to provide a rigorous application or enthusiastic answers to ‘should have been expected’ questions is going to summon the energy to provide a rigorous and enthusiastic education for its students.”
In addition to a weak proposal that clearly didn’t meet the board’s standards and needed to be held accountable, many, many residents turned out at hearings and board meetings to oppose the online charter, which would have been backed by K12 Inc, a company our new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, once held stock in. “While there is a place for computer-assisted education in the classroom, approval of an online charter school should not be rushed through,” the Daily Herald quoted one woman as saying. “Largely online learning eliminates socialization, developing collaboration and teamwork and self-definition.”
Carol Higgins, a special-education teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, added that children need contact: “The human element of Naperville schools cannot be replaced with an online program. Every child needs to have someone, in the morning, say, ‘Hey! Good morning. How are you doing?’ You can’t get that in some online program.”
With Illinois’s charter school laws being more liberal than Maryland’s, Illinois has a promise of $42 million from the US Department of Education over five years, meant to enhance the state’s ability to financially assist in the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools. The commission is a component of what got Illinois that promise.
But because it has, in fact, taken power away from elected officials and the people of the state, the commission has fought lawsuits since the beginning. Ms Williams defends the work of the appointed commission by saying students aren’t trapped in charter schools. “Parents choose to send their children to charter schools. Rather than defending lawsuits, the commission would prefer to spend time and resources fostering high-quality education experiences for children and families in Chicago and across the state.”
And I feel the same way, but that is, for the most part, what boards of education already do. They are coming to realize that traditional neighborhood schools aren’t serving the needs of all students, and breaking off subgroups into charter or magnet schools may be part of an answer. Although this can also lead to race-based and class-based segregation, school board members risk not being reelected if they don’t hear those concerns from the people, and that’s how democracy is supposed to work.
The SCSC, which runs more like a business than a democracy, should play more of an advisory role, especially in terms of managing the finances and perhaps finding efficiency in our traditional neighborhood public schools. Instead it partially allows sometimes fly-by-night companies to receive taxpayer dollars and start substandard schools. The SCSC without accountability rules would lead to a disaster. If the commission had gotten hold of the Illinois Virtual school proposal, I feel confident in saying they would not have taken into account the expressed wish of the people not to allow the school.
Maryland’s proposed legislation
Mr Hogan’s proposed legislation would significantly relax restrictions on Maryland charter schools by providing charter schools more freedom over their operations and staffing. It also would channel state funding directly to some charter schools. Currently, local boards of education pay for charter schools in their respective school districts.
Republican governors in many states, especially in the 25 where both chambers of the general assembly are also controlled by Republicans, are moving quickly to enact conservative policies, the New York Times reports. Such movement in these states has been in the works for years, especially under the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and the general lack of transparency, and reporting, on state government issues. No one seems to be minding the store in statehouses.
The average citizen, like me, who has a regular job, hasn’t got the time or resources to fight back, which is why we depend on the press, like Maryland Reporter.com, which first brought this story to our attention. And while I have no opinion on this legislation, I can only hope our government will work to make all schools equally accountable.
Under the plan, charter schools created through a new Maryland State Charter School Authority could be exempted from local school system policies, state accountability requirements, and class size and staffing numbers. This is a recipe for disaster, not innovation. We saw before and during No Child Left Behind what happens when such decisions fall under the purview of local schools or building principals. A charter school board, made up most likely of financial professionals, probably won’t have a clue about what a curriculum ought to be.
That’s one danger of taking school decisions, especially around curriculum, away from an elected school board and putting them into the hands of appointed businessmen. The profits may roll in, but the quality of education and the support we provide for our students, based on past experience and evidence, is likely to suffer. So reports John Oliver:
“Educators support innovative public charter schools that develop better instruction for all students in our school districts,” said the director of legislative affairs for Maryland’s largest teachers’ union in a statement.
“But Gov. Hogan’s charter school fraud bill would create a separate unaccountable system for charter schools to receive greater taxpayer funding than our neighborhood public schools with little to no oversight. It’s been a recipe for fraud and waste in other states and we strongly urge legislators to oppose this Betsy DeVos-style scheme to privatize Maryland’s schools.”