Illinois Charter Community Has Best Legislative Session Since 2011, But We Need a Budget Now

As the Illinois legislative session ended on May 31, so did my second year as a lobbyist in Springfield. It has taken me a few weeks to reflect on my experience during this last session because it was successful, yet infuriating. While much of the media attention has focused on the legislature’s failure to pass a budget, it is worth noting that this was the best legislative session for charter policy since 2011. Over the past few years, public charter schools have been under attack, and this year was no different. HB397 has been the primary thrust of the attack, which looks to end the Illinois State Charter Commission. The commission is the only route of appeal families and communities have when school districts deny them access to a high-quality charter school. In 2011, the Illinois General Assembly created the commission as a way to provide a diverse body with the expertise needed to evaluate appeal proposals, and to ease the burden placed on the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The charter community has fought every year to protect the commission for children and families and this year was no exception. In a 72-hour period before a crucial legislative hearing, parents, school leaders, and community members filed 942 witness slips in opposition to HB397. They also made their voices heard by contacting 112 legislators with 1,030 emails and phone calls. Their activity prompted the Senate Education Committee to cancel the hearing. Although the battle is not over, this was a major victory for charter supporters. This session was also the first time since 2011 that a pro-charter bill passed both chambers of the Illinois legislature. Due to the leadership of Representative André Thapedi, HB5918 passed the House with 103 votes and passed the Senate unanimously. HB5918 provides increased accountability for new charter schools, rewards high-quality charter schools with longer renewal terms, and increases access to start-up funding through the Illinois Charter School Revolving Loan Fund. While we had some success on the charter front, I left the capitol disheartened because of the legislature’s failure to enact a K-12 funding budget. At 11:32 pm on May 30, I sat in the state capitol building listening to members of the Illinois General Assembly debate whether to provide additional funding for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), funding that is desperately needed. This final school funding bill, which was an amalgamation of every funding bill presented this session, failed in the House with a mere 24 votes for yes. Our communities were once again told that they must wait for a solution that does not seem forthcoming. As the state of Illinois enters its second year without a budget, thousands of children are left without programs that keep them out of harm’s way. Although I am thrilled that the charter community has made much progress this year, I cannot help but fear for the safety of our children and the state of our broken education system—a system that gives the most vulnerable students the fewest resources. I understand the frustration that many legislators express toward CPS, however I wonder if this conversation would be different if the population of CPS was predominately white, and not 89 percent minority and low-income. I am readying myself for a summer of uncertainty as many schools prepare to lay off staff, cut after-school programs, and delay their fall start dates. I can only hope that our elected officials see that willfully choosing to delay action, knowing the most vulnerable people in our state will suffer, is the same thing as intentionally harming them.
Ariel Johnson is senior legislative affairs manager at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and a Surge fellow. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from John Carroll University and graduated from Loyola University School of Law.

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