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Give Charters the College Try

The Metro East area is home to some of the lowest-performing schools in Illinois. Perhaps no community in Illinois is in greater need of new, innovative public schools. Residents of certain Illinois towns—East St. Louis, Madison and Cahokia, for instance—can look across the river to St. Louis and be somewhat jealous.

Schools on both sides of the Mississippi face similar challenges: multi-generational poverty and persistent school failure, to name just two. St. Louis, however, has more readily turned to charter schools to make a difference, embracing a national trend with a strong and growing track record of achieving success with at-risk student populations. Across the city, 18 charter school campuses have opened throughout the 28,000-student district. In the Illinois Metro East area, however, only three charter schools have opened – and one of those will soon be closed by its host district.

There is one reason why charter schools have opened in greater numbers in St. Louis: in Missouri, universities are allowed to authorize and oversee charter schools, while in Illinois school districts are given primary control over charter schools.

Most school districts in Illinois have been unwilling to approve charter schools.  District officials often lack the experience of monitoring charters, and even when capacity isn’t an issue, district schools would have to compete with charter schools for students, which often proves irksome to local officials.

Universities are able to be more objective than school districts when weighing whether a charter school should be allowed to open. They have talented faculty capable of monitoring charter schools, each of which is unique in its mission to better educate students. Responsible oversight of charter schools requires staff experience and talent that most school districts do not possess.

Missouri is not the only state that allows universities to authorize charter schools. The Center for Education Reform reports that universities are currently granted chartering authority in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.

This approach has produced several of the nation’s finest charter schools. In particular, Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University (CMU) has earned a reputation for being a “gold standard” for university authorizing, and it regularly dispenses advice to authorizers in other states.

The CMU center oversees a diverse list of 58 charter schools. These include schools focusing on college preparatory, performing arts, technical, environmental science and Montessori approaches. Its Individualized School Performance Review System provides the basis for its highly-regarded oversight. The system considers the following in its systematic evaluation process: “mission-specific goals; value-added analysis of student academic achievement; relative performance compared to other charter schools; state accountability standards; federal accountability standards; fiscal accountability; site and facilities, and notification and reporting requirements.”

Jim Goenner, executive director of the CMU’s Center, noted that providing support is an essential role of an effective authorizer. “We believe that it is important to inform and educate before overseeing and enforcing,” he said in a recent article.

Illinois’s institutions of higher learning have long shown an interest in education reform and, in certain instances, charter schools.  They’ve served as operators and consultants to charter schools throughout the state.

Southern Illinois University operates a charter high school in East St. Louis. The University of Chicago operates several charter school campuses in Chicago. The University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology have both partnered with existing charter school networks to form unique college-prep campuses. Through these experiences as charter school operators, these universities are undoubtedly learning invaluable lessons of the day-to-day workings of charter schools. Perhaps the higher education community in Illinois could step into the role of authorizer, if Illinois law is changed to allow them to do so.

Illinois’s universities are some of the best in the world.  The same cannot be said of our public schools.  On a limited scale, charter schools are reversing the trends of school failure in many of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods.  It seems to be common sense to allow our state’s universities to help spread the successes of charter schools to the rest of the state by allowing them to serve as charter school authorizers.

Don Soifer contributed to this column, adapted from the Illinois Policy Institute brief “Opening the Doors to Better Schools: reforming Illinois’s charter school authorization law Collin Hitt is the Director of Education Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.