News Local/State

Charter Schools: What Does The Future Hold?


Charter schools have long been a divisive issue. Supporters say they allow schools to teach kids free of burdensome regulations. Opponents say they take money away from traditional schools. In Illinois this year, those views are colliding.

Back in 1999, a fight between high school students broke out  in the stands at a football  game in Decatur. It gained national attention after Reverend Jesse Jackson came to town to advocate for the rights of the students who were expelled as a result. Out of the whole ordeal came a local pastor's idea for an alternative school, one that would cater to low income minority students.

Robertson Charter School opened in 2001 with 67 students. It now has 335, and a waiting list of over 200 kids hoping to get in. Principal Cordell Ingram has been here for over a decade. 

“We always talk about flexibility with accountability - the importance of teachers being able to go into a classroom and try unique things, with the understanding that at the end of the year I am going to have to be accountable for these unique things I have tried,” Ingram said.

Roberston Charter School in Decatur, Ill. (Rachel Otwell/IPR)

Christina Graybeal is a secretary at Robertson who is hoping to soon be a teacher assistant. She said she can provide emotional support to students, and form close relationships with students at Robertson. 

"They allow me to bring heart into the job. To take care of people - to take care of their needs. To make sure people are making doctor appointments, to make sure people are having breakfast in the morning,” Graybeal said. 

Graybeal explained that her own two daughters attended Robertson after she noticed they were struggling in traditional public schools and needed help with socializing and a learning disorder. She said they thrived at Robertson.

Charter schools across the state serve different functions. And they are gaining in popularity. There are about 145 in Illinois. State figures show in 2003 there were about 13,000 students enrolled in them in Illinois. Now, that number is more like 60,000. 

Most of the students are low income and minority and live in Chicago. There's debate though over how well students at the charters perform academically.

There are new obstacles at the state capitol. During a recent charter school lobby day, hundreds of parents, students, and educators protested several measures they say would limit the autonomy charter schools currently enjoy, as well as their ability to market themselves. One proposal would kill the Illinois Charter School Commission, which serves as an appeals board and can authorize a charter even if districts deny the application.

“This is a bad idea, this an attempt to kill charter schools. The current commission is working fine,"  said David McSweeney, a Republican Representative from Barrington Hills, during the legislative debate. "Let's support charter schools."

Though the idea had opponents, the measure passed the house.

President for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, Andrew Broy agrees some politicians have it out for charters.

"I think there's clearly a movement afoot to kind of hurt charter growth and then regulate charter schools," Broy said. "We'll have to see whether this is the new normal.” 

He said the future of charters hinges on what happens in the statehouse. 

“Parents are realizing the power of charter schools, I don't see that stopping," he added. "We have wait-lists, people want to get into the charters schools, so charter schools will continue. The question will be, will we embrace charter schools as part of the solution or will we fight them with legislation and with political battles. And I hope it's the former, not the later."

Still, not everyone agrees that charters are what's best for the future of education, or that they've so far lived up to expectations. Bob Hill served as superintendent in the first school district outside of Chicago to form a charter school, in Springfield. He said he wishes the schools were more innovative and experimental . Still, he admits many parents across the state have proven the idea is a popular one. 

"Do I think they are going to want to exercise choice in picking which schools their students go to? The answer is yes," Hill said. "Maybe where that whole conversation should go will be an outgrowth of this first 20 or 25 years of the charter school movement, but I'm convinced we don't have the metrics right yet."

Back in Decatur at Robertson Charter, Principal Ingram said his school is getting its metrics right. The school has been out-performing others in the district. He said he hopes Robertson can form another campus, but due to finances, it's not yet a realistic goal. And the waiting list continues to grow. 

“The negative of the current system is that you get to be a tremendous blessing to small group of kids as you watch other kids around the community not be able to get in and not be able to have the success we're having,” Ingram said.

It is not likely the debate at the statehouse over charters will come to an end anytime soon, and their advocates are anticipating the most threatening session yet.  

Over the past few years there was an agreed upon moratorium for charter school legislation, and this is the first year since then that charter measures are popping up under the dome. The question remains if charters will be squashed by potential restrictions and regulations, or if they have enough political allies to continue growing.