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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Race to the Top

Race to the Top is, in short, a $4.35 billion dollar fund that’s part of the Federal Stimulus package, which is itself designed to bring unprecedented levels of federal funding to certain states to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps. Through Race to the Top, Illinois has a historic and potentially groundbreaking opportunity to use this one-time federal money to implement high impact reforms.

INCS stands ready to work with the state to help get a winning application for Illinois and bring much needed funds to our state. To that end, we’ve identified four key areas that the Department of Education should look at when it comes to charter public schools. Illinois has done well in some of these areas, and in others, there is room for Illinois to improve upon for a winning application.

1. Authorizing

Illinois has, in statute, the basics for authorizing and outlines the role of school districts as authorizers. We currently have a task force, commissioned by the general assembly, which will review the need for and capacity of creating a new and independent charter school authorizer for the state. Illinois has only one active authorizer at the moment – the Chicago Public Schools. We do not have consistent authorizing practices across the state as the majority of the districts are not serving as authorizers of charters and therefore not creating the in-house expertise on charter school authorizing essential to the creation and oversight of charter schools.

To improve Illinois’ Race to the Top application as it relates to charter public schools, a state-wide approach to authorizing that will share the best practice in the creation, oversight and re-authorizing or closing of charter schools would put Illinois at the top of the class when it comes to charter school authorizing. We hope the recommendations put forth by the task force at the end of this year and any subsequent action taken by the General Assembly will accomplish that end.

2. Caps

Both President Obama and Secretary Duncan have commented publicly about the need to lift charter school caps. INCS is proud that Illinois was the first state, under the leadership Sen. Lightford, Senator Steans and Representative Mitchell to heed that call and double the number of charters available in Illinois. We certainly think Illinois should tout that achievement in its Race to the Top application.

3. Funding Equity

According to the Race to the Top application draft, the D.O.E will be looking at the extent to which the State's charter schools receive equitable funding compared to traditional public schools, and a commensurate share of local, State, and Federal program and revenue sources.

The reality is that we just do not have this information. There is a general perception by our charter operators that charters receive less funding than traditional schools. We need access to the data from all districts that authorize charter schools to truly know. More importantly, the onus is on Illinois to prove in its application that charters are funded fairly.

This leads to my final point. Often, the funding equation does not factor in one of the biggest expenses charter schools face – facilities funding.

4. Facilities Access

The D.O.E. will examine the extent to which the state provides charter schools with equitable access to facilities by providing them with facilities funding, assistance with facilities acquisition, access to public facilities, the ability to share in bonds and mill levies, and/or other supports

This past legislative session, $173 million was allocated to school districts and charter schools for facilities. Part of that funding went to the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) to build new charter school facilities that would help alleviate overcrowding. There were also other dollars set for charter school facilities in Rockford and other charter schools, including ASPIRA, this past year. This facilities funding allocation will help some with the Illinois application, but it does not go far enough.

Even though we’ve had this one-time allotment of funds for charter facilities, they are just that — a one-time allotment. Prior to this session there have not been state funds allocated for charter public school buildings. Currently, a vacuum exists in the charter law to address the facilities needs of charter public schools. That issue left unresolved would dock points from the Illinois Race to the Top application.

With respect to charter schools, Illinois does not have all of the winning pieces in place to secure top marks on the charter section of Race to the Top. It is the hope that with improvement of these four key issues , Illinois will not only have a stronger application, but stronger supports for charter schools that have already shown to be quality public schools.

-Carlos Perez

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