A Fresh Perspective Why Illinois needs an independent charter school authorizer
by Marvin Smith, Policy Manager, Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS)
Charter schools are non-selective public schools open to all students. Here in Illinois, they serve a population that is 84% low income, 65% African-American, and 29% Latino. Since the charter school law passed in 1996, these innovative schools—given freedom in budget, schedule, curriculum, governance, and hiring of teachers—have proven successful in improving student outcomes. In fact, the latest Chicago Public Schools Charter School Performance Report notes that students in 40 of 44 charter schools posted higher composite scores on the 2008 ISAT than their neighborhood comparison schools—that’s 90%!1
Education Reform also makes the case for independent authorizers: “There are the fewest number of charters and the least education opportunities in states where the only authorizers are the local school boards.”2 In Illinois, we lag behind other states because local school boards are the only allowed authorizers. Too often, school districts are reluctant to open charter schools for a variety of reasons. Illinois needs a statewide independent authorizer whose sole purpose is opening high-quality charter schools. This will help ensure that Illinois charter schools build upon existing, best-practice success stories. Most importantly, it expands Illinois’s ability to provide more school choice, serve more children, and serve them well.
President Obama recently urged the states, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to devote more attention to expanding education reform initiatives and specifically charter schools. He said, “Now, that leads me to the fourth part of American’s education strategy—promoting innovation and excellence in America’s schools. One of the places where much of that innovation occurs is in our most effective charter schools.”
The next logical question is: What exactly would an independent charter school authorizer look like? In some states, an independent authorizer is a university, a statewide commission or other state-appointed group. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools recommends that Illinois’s independent authorizer is a statewide board composed of appointed members—education experts with responsibility for approving charters, overseeing school performance, and renewing charters. They could also share their expertise with local school districts in their own authorization plans. An independent authorizer provides quality assurance as the charter sector expands across the state, and keeps charters opening in communities that really need them.
Illinois’s Charter Roadblocks
How do Illinois’s students get more of these high-performing charter schools? Well, understanding authorizing of charter schools is crucial. An authorizer is a public body responsible for approving charters, monitoring performance, and evaluating academic and operational performance of charter schools. An attentive authorizer, one that enables a charter school space to implement innovative teaching strategies while carefully watching school performance, is key to charter school success. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the nation’s leading expert on charter authorizing, states: “The presence of an independent authorizing board has created a more robust charter sector and increased the opportunities for innovation and systemic impact.” Further, of the 4,150 U.S. charter schools, 80% are in states with multiple authorizers. The Center for
What an Independent Authorizer Looks Like
There are over 880 school districts across our state. The largest of these, Chicago Public Schools, has already authorized its limit of charters. In other districts, school boards are often hesitant or unprepared to approve charters, even in communities that really need better schools.
An independent authorizer would:
Charters are one of countless priorities that school boards must consider, and sometimes it is just not the most pressing. In some cases, political influences have plagued districts attempting to authorize and open charter schools. A statewide independent authorizer would have the nimbleness to stay insulated from local politics and focus on what’s best to create charter schools. Therefore, several states have allowed additional authorizers to accomplish what school districts, for whatever reason, cannot.
Building new routes to charter school authorization gives students, teachers, and communities more local public school choices.
Support current, active, and effective authorizers
Assist communities with school districts working to improve local authorizing activity
Lead the authorizing effort in inactive communities
Chicago International is just one of the many charter schools closing the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students. For charter school impact to broaden, more avenues for charter growth must be created. If concerned community members let Illinois’s decision-makers in Springfield know they want to create an independent authorizer, our government will understand that high-quality public school choice is a top priority for Illinois families.
Chicago Public Schools. Office of New Schools. 2007-2008 Charter School Performance Report.
Center for Education Reform: National Charter School Directory and Annual Survey of America’s Charter Schools