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Ignoring threat to its existence, Illinois’ charter commission weighs schools’ future

Elementary students at Moving Everest charter school read about fossils.
Elementary students at Moving Everest charter school read about fossils.
Yana Kunichoff

Even as it faces a threat to its very existence, the Illinois State Charter Commission continued about its business this week, considering whether to overrule Chicago on its rejection of four charter schools.

Empowered to override local school boards’ rulings on closing or rejecting charter schools, the 8-year-old commission acts as an occasional lifeline for charter schools. But the commission’s future appears dim.

On Wednesday, the state legislature took up a bill that would dismantle the commission. The only thing that blocked the legislature from severely weakening the commission last year was a veto by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner. The Senate then failed to override the veto.

Now, with the legislature likely to try to kill the commission, it is not clear if the body still has a political backstop. Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, said last fall during his campaign that he would support a moratorium on charter growth. Asked if he would curtail the authority of the charter commission, he demurred.

Tuesday the commission’s schools committee reviewed the appeals of four charter schools. Late last year, Chicago Public Schools ordered Kwame Nkrumah Academy and Urban Prep West to close at the end of the school year. The district also had rejected proposals to open new schools, from networks called Intrinsic and Moving Everest.

By its own timeline, the charter commission has three more weeks to act on the appeals. Tuesday was reserved for discussing the cases. The board already has held public meetings, solicited emailed comments and reviewed test scores.

Urban Prep West, which serves 213 students and is rated a Level 2, has seen enrollment decline and has struggled to get off the Chicago district’s academic warning list. The commissioners talked about why the school may have experienced declining enrollment. Urban Prep supporters earlier had turned out at a public hearing on the school’s fate and the school has stressed its mission of working with students.

“The school is really focused on making them strong, respectful, young black men,” said the commission’s general counsel Shenita Johnson, who noted the importance of teachers who look like the students.

In voting to close Kwame Nkrumah Academy, the district cited the school’s Level 3 status — that’s the lowest rating in the district — for two years, financial and operational concerns and the school’s failure to follow a mandatory improvement plan.

But Johnson noted that remediation plans the district gave to charters weren’t always manageable.

“CPS allows schools to set the goals,” said Johnson, who previously managed charter authorization work in Detroit and New Orleans. “They set goals on the high end as opposed to on the attainable.”

The charter commission supports at least nine charter schools serving more than 4,000 students across the state, according to Johnson. In size of enrollment, that puts it in the top 25 percent of school districts in Illinois.

Looking to the next few weeks, Johnson said the commission would continue its review of the Chicago charters, and make a decision soon.

As for its future under a new governor, Johnson said Illinois had an established appeal route for charters in the state even before the commission was created. “Our work and our process have always been… a mission to ensure that students and families have access to high quality academic experiences,” she said.

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