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.”