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Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:07 am

School choice, another Statehouse battlefront

Ball Charter School
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

Gov. Bruce Rauner loves school choice so much he devoted an entire week to it.

Rauner named Jan. 24 through 30 “School Choice Week” in Illinois to promote a popular concept in education reform, but the push for school choice leaves public schools nervous.

“School choice” refers to allowing students to opt out of normal public schools in favor of alternative options. The idea, which first took firm root in the 1990s, promises efficiency and innovative approaches to education.

The most common form school choice takes is public charter schools, which are essentially independent, publicly funded schools run by the state or in partnership with a local school district. They are subject to different regulations than traditional public schools, giving them flexibility in things like curriculum. Illinois has a cap of 75 charter schools in Chicago and 45 downstate, although there are currently fewer than 50 statewide.

Ball Charter School within Springfield Public Schools is one example. Created in 1998, Ball Charter was one of the first charter schools in Illinois, serving students kindergarten through eighth grade. Students within District 186 can apply for the charter school and are chosen by a lottery.

District 186 superintendent Jennifer Gill says the district has a good relationship with Ball Charter School, but she is wary of having too many charter schools because of their potential to siphon already tight funding away from traditional public schools.

“Any school that would pull away from the average number of students in the district would pull away dollars,” Gill said.

The Illinois Education Association supports charter schools – provided they are approved by a local school board. To that end, IEA supports House Bill 397, which would remove the authority of the Illinois Charter School Commission to override a local school district’s decision on whether to allow a charter school.

School choice has another, more controversial face, however. Some groups, such as National School Choice Week, want states to implement “voucher” systems which allow students from public schools to use state funds to attend private schools. That leads some opponents to criticize vouchers – and the school choice movement at large – as a back-door effort to undermine teacher unions and force privatization of education.

Additionally, most private schools in the U.S. are religious-based, raising constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.

Although Rauner declared “School Choice Week” in Illinois, the statement attributed to him by National School Choice Week makes no mention of vouchers, an idea NSCW heavily promotes.

“The mission of my administration is to create a cradle-to-career educational system whereby students complete their post-secondary experience prepared to be engaged citizens with meaningful and rewarding careers,” Rauner is quoted as saying in a Jan. 20 NSCW press release. “In order to accomplish that mission, we must provide high-quality educational options for families regardless of geographic location or community wealth. Charter schools are already providing many Illinois families with choices; we look forward to supporting the growth of charter schools through our federal grant.”

Rauner’s office could not be reached for clarification by press time.

The federal grant Rauner referred to is a $42-million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create 48 new charter schools in Illinois.

The grant has some limitations which may limit the growth of charter schools in Illinois. For example, applicants must have a track record of operating a successful charter school, and it appears that only nonprofit groups can apply.

Still, the Illinois Education Association opposes House Bill 814, which would lift the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. The bill is currently tabled but could be revived during the upcoming legislative session.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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