Opinion: Halt Broken Charter School Expansion Process

Charter operator used political connections to receive funding and approval

First UNO. Now Concept.

Clearly, something’s wrong.

Monday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported a politically-connected charter school operator, Concept Schools, Inc., used a little-known state agency to receive approval and funding to open two schools in Chicago after being turned down by the Chicago Public Schools.

CPS said the charter’s current school, Chicago Math and Science Academy, wasn’t doing a good enough job to warrant expansion. So the company appealed to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, an agency created with the help of House Speaker Michael Madigan, a firm backer of charter schools in general and Concept in particular.

The whole story is a tangle of insider dealing, cronyism and political favoritism, played out against a backdrop of massive transfer of public education funds from public to private schools in Chicago and across the state.

Concept is the only charter operator to win approval in the agency’s two-year existence. As a result of the decision, Concept is getting 33 percent more funding per pupil than other charters. The agency board included a retired chief executive of Caterpillar, Inc., who serves as president of the board of a Peoria school that’s managed by Concept. Politicians, including Madigan, took foreign trips as guests of an organization tied to the schools. More than half of the state charter commission’s budget has come from private contributions, including powerful corporations that back charter expansion.

The list goes on and on.

The revelations about Concept follow months of controversy and scandal surrounding the state’s biggest charter school operator, UNO. The former United Neighborhood Organization, which operates 16 schools in Chicago, used connections with powerful politicians such as Madigan and Ald. Ed Burke (14th) to get charters approved with taxpayer funding.

The head of UNO, Juan Rangel, was one of the most politically-connected people in Chicago and Illinois before being forced to step down earlier this month. UNO twice had its funding halted by Gov. Quinn because of financial and contracting scandals.

Both Concept and UNO are part of a veritable land rush of charter schools in the city even as public schools are shuttered at an historic rate.

For fiscal year 2014, CPS has projected a reduction in salaries for teachers and staff of $148.8 million, while increasing the amount of money going to charter schools by $80 million. Currently, CPS is considering opening 21 new charter schools over the next two years.

As charter schools continue to take root, however, one fact is clear: No process this steeped in political cronyism and insider dealing should be allowed to continue.

In November, State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) introduced a bill that would abolish the Charter School Commission—a move that, on the face of it, seems well-timed.

But more must be done. Gov. Pat Quinn must show leadership on this issue, and undertake a statewide review of how charters are approved and funded in Illinois, with a special emphasis on creating structural barriers between political influence and decisions on how best to educate children.

As well, perhaps the newly-created Chicago City Council Office of Financial Analysis can adopt as part of it’s mission the ability to review the financial impact of charter expansion in Chicago before any additional charters are approved.

The truth is, in the rush to approve charters the rules of good government and financial transparency are being ignored. And, as every decision to open a charter ultimately affects students across the city and state, the taxpayers and parents of Illinois must be able to trust the right decisions are being made, every time.

If anything, the realities behind UNO and Concept demonstrate the need to take a hard look at how charters to open schools are won and lost in this state and stop approving more schools until answers and reforms are found.

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