challenging the charters

Illinois requests $1.5 million in interest-free loans for charter school fund

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

At its first meeting since the inauguration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois State Board of Education on Monday agreed to ask the state for $1.5 million in interest-free loans for charter school facilities and classroom technology.

The board included the funding in its $19.3 billion preliminary recommendation for public education in the fiscal year starting July, $7.2 billion more than this year’s budget. The final recommendation will be made in February and heads to the governor and General Assembly for approval.

In his first speech after taking the oath as Illinois governor, Pritzker made few concrete promises on education, focusing instead on the task of balancing the Illinois budget, overhauling the state tax code, and finding new revenue. As a candidate, he had pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion.

In coming months, Pritzker will have the chance to replace several members of the State Board of Education whose terms are expiring. That could impact the board’s approval of charter-related budget items, as well as herald a new direction on controversial charter-related legislation like the state charter commission, which can approve charters rejected at the district level.  

The state’s Charter School Revolving Loan Fund grew under former governor Bruce Rauner, who sought to promote charter schools.

Unlike some other states, Illinois doesn’t provide funding for charter school facilities, and neither do most districts. That means charters must acquire facilities funding through bonds or other financial deals.

The state created the fund to help build, acquire and improve charter classrooms, and to provide supplies, textbooks and other equipment. Schools could apply for up to $250 per student in funding.

In 2016, the legislature increased the per-pupil loan amount to $750 per student, despite objections from some legislators.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, which drafted the 2016 bill that increased per-pupil funding through the loans, said he was pleased the draft budget includes more money for the fund, but that $1.5 million doesn’t meet the needs of charters when local districts don’t fund facilities facilities.

“Charters have huge facilities needs in the state, and $1.5 million doesn’t even scratch the surface,” Broy said.

Broy noted that because the fund was revolving, any loans that charters received were paid back directly into the fund.

But Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a national group that advocates for public schools, criticized the fund for funneling public money to the independently operated charter schools.

“Before the state goes ahead and uses taxpayer dollars to pour into another fund to start up new charters, it’s really important that there be a careful accounting of what happened in the past,” said Burris. “I would hope that under the new governor, Illinois would put a pause button on this.”

stopping the shuffle

New bill would keep virtual charters from moving around students, but stops short of harsher oversight

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

A bill that would prohibit virtual charters from shuffling students between schools cleared a legislative hurdle Wednesday. If signed into law, it could prevent online schools from bypassing state efforts to hold them accountable.

Sen. Jeff Raatz, the author of the bill, which passed out of a state Senate committee, said the idea came from the Indiana Department of Education, which noticed two virtual charter schools in the same network were moving around large groups of students.

The state’s three virtual charter school operators all have multiple schools in their network. Raatz did not name the schools in question and the education department did not confirm them either. But Chalkbeat reported in November that state data showed that since 2017, thousands of students have transferred from Indiana Virtual School to its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

Raatz said the transfers he was made aware of came “at an opportune time to save [the school’s] letter grade.” Under his amended bill, virtual charter networks would not be allowed to transfer students between schools during the same school year.

Enrollment swings at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy meant the school did not get a state grade for 2018 because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough. So despite being responsible for more than 6,000 students last year, the state is missing a key metric designed to hold the school accountable.

Read: Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

The A-F grades that Indiana hands out factor in student test scores and too few students passing can result in lower grades. If a school receives four consecutive F grades, it can lead to state sanctions. At Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy last year, fewer than 6 percent of students passed both English and math exams.

Raatz’s bill originally included provisions that would have reduced financial incentives for groups that oversee virtual charter schools and imposed some harsher consequences for poor academics. But the amended version that passed out of committee no longer cuts the fees authorizers can collect from the schools they monitor. The bill also struck language that would have prohibited virtual schools from enrolling new students — thereby stopping their funding stream — after four consecutive years of failing grades from the state.

Both clauses were part of recommendations from the Indiana State Board of Education, which late last year wrapped up a months-long review of low-performing virtual schools. These provisions would have addressed board members’ concerns about how much money some authorizers were bringing in and how they were spending it, as well as virtual schools’ rapid growth.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School revealed widespread low performance and questionable business and spending practices, setting off a statewide conversation about how the schools are serving students and what regulations need to be added.

Read: Hoosiers paid $1 million for a rural district to oversee online charter schools. Is it too much?

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Merrillville Democrat who has proposed accountability legislation aimed at virtual charters that is unlikely to advance, said he wishes Raatz’s bill accomplished more.

“I don’t feel like we’re adequately addressing, holistically, the issue that virtual charter schools are not excelling,” Melton said. “I hope we can look deeper into more accountability.”

Like its counterpart in the House, which passed a final vote to advance to the second half of the legislative session last week, the Senate bill requires students at virtual charters and district-run online schools to complete an orientation before enrolling. The bills also change state law to prohibit school districts from being virtual charter school authorizers.

Raatz said the bill was scaled back because lawmakers were worried the original draft would hamper the schools.

“We need to wrap our arms around the the virtual space without stopping it from happening,” he said. “Maybe we aren’t coming down as hard as some would like, but the day’s not over yet.”

Walkout: Day 4

Why Chicago’s second charter strike is one to watch

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Striking Chicago International Charter School teachers and supporters march in front of CICS's Chicago corporate offices Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

As Denver teachers went out on strike Monday in a pay dispute with their district, charter teachers in Chicago at four schools operated by Civitas Education Partners entered the second week of a strike over wages and support services for students.

With negotiations failing again on Sunday night, teachers braved freezing temperatures to walk picket lines at the crack of dawn outside the downtown headquarters of Chicago International Charter Schools, Civitas’ parent company. They also staged an afternoon rally, focusing on the charter’s unusual management structure, and called for the network’s CEO to join them at the bargaining table.

The strike affects 180 teachers and paraprofessionals and about 2,200 students. Schools are open and staffed by non-union staff — 165 students attended class at CICS Wrightwood elementary on Monday, while no students came to CICS Northtown, according to Chicago International’s figures.

Here’s what you need to know as the strike heads into its second week:

What is the main sticking point in negotiations?

Pay remains a sticking point between the teachers’ union and Civitas Education Partners.

Teachers and support staff are demanding increased pay that rewards their education levels and experience, more counselors and social workers and smaller class sizes. They are also angry at recent changes in benefit structures, including no longer offering paid parental leave for staff.

Union officials said the network has offered teachers an 8 percent raise in the first year of the contract, but only if they agree to staffing cuts in some areas like counseling and social workers.

Management has said that the union has agreed to several points, including counselor ratios and class size. In response, Jen Conant, a CICS Northtown teacher and member of the bargaining team, accused the network of lying.

“CICS continues to demand that our educators trade small raises on already terrible wages for cuts to our students’ education needs,” Conant said. “We have no agreement on class sizes, which CICS wants to increase. We have no agreement on counselor ratios, which CICS also wants to increase.”

Who’s at the table?

At the negotiating table, 14 people represents the union, including teachers, paraprofessionals, the union’s general counsel, and field representatives from the striking schools.

On management’s side, Civitas officials negotiate, led by LeeAndra Khan, the company’s CEO.

But in recent days, the union has called for Civitas’ parent company, Chicago International Charter Schools, to join the talks.

“We want CICS to come to the table and negotiate with teachers,” said Stacey Davis Gates, political director of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Unlike charter networks that run schools directly, Chicago International operates more like a contractor: It hires other organizations to run schools. The network oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator.

Khan, of Civitas, has insisted that her company makes financial decisions and that Chicago International has no personnel function at striking schools. “CICS is not at the table because CICS is not the employer,” she said.

Why is this strike significant?

This is the third charter teachers strike in the country — the first took place when Acero teachers walked off the job in Chicago in December, and the second when educators in Los Angeles, including from three charter schools, walked off the job for eight days last month.

Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said by winning some demands, CICS teachers could demonstrate that charter employees can stage — and win —  strikes. Teachers in both Chicago’s Acero strike, and in Los Angeles, were able to get many of their demands.

“Maybe the first strike is unique,” said Bruno. But “if CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] is successful with the second one, then it affirms that this is a path that can be productive for teachers.”

Negotiations resumed at 5 p.m. Monday.