Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and school board president David Vitale agree: the state's charter school commission law stinks.
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and school board president David Vitale agree: the state's charter school commission law stinks. Credit: John H. White/Sun-Times Media

An amazing thing happened last Wednesday: the mayor’s hand-picked school board momentarily put aside its union-busting agenda to extend an olive branch to Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis.

Technically, it was Lewis who extended the branch. But give the board members credit for resisting the effort to whack her over the head with it.

Given the state of affairs at the Chicago Public Schools, this counts as progress in labor relations.

The rare point of agreement was over a state law designed to create more charter schools across Illinois, whether or not local districts want them.

“This is an area where you and I can walk hand in hand to Springfield,” Lewis said at the meeting. “I will sit on that table with you, begging and screaming to get rid of that law. I bet you if we worked on that together, Springfield would respond.”

To which board president David Vitale replied, “Let’s join hands.”

That’s when Lewis and Vitale jumped to their feet and started singing in unison: “Put your hands in the hands of the man who stilled the waters . . . ”

OK, that last part didn’t happen. But all kidding aside, the law that has Vitale and Lewis united in opposition is one that created the Illinois State Charter School Commission. It just may be the dumbest idea to come out of Springfield since legislators gave a huge tax break to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

I’m still not over that one, folks.

The charter school commission is a nine-member board appointed by the state board of education from a list of nominees sent by Governor Pat Quinn.

Among other things, the commission has the authority to create charters even when they’ve been rejected by local school boards, including Chicago’s. Think of it as a place that charter operators can appeal to when they don’t get their way—as if this band of clout-heavy privateers needs even more juice.

If the commission decides to hand out a charter over the objection of the local school board, the new charter school essentially becomes a publicly funded independent operator that’s free of control from the local district.

In effect, every time the commission approves a new charter, it creates a virtually unregulated shadow institution, unaccountable to taxpayers who fund their budgets.

Thank you, commission.

The more money CPS is compelled to dole out to charters, the less it will have for its dead-broke regular schools.

It’s not as though the state was doing a whiz-bang job of regulating charters to begin with. It took Sun-Times investigative reporter Dan Mihalopoulos to break the news that UNO, one of Illinois’s largest charter operators, was handing out state construction money to companies owned by brothers of a top UNO executive.

For that matter, Mihalopoulos and reporter Becky Schlikerman were the ones who reported that two Chicago charter schools were planning to pay rent to landlords who happen to be cronies of Mayor Emanuel’s.

Why not put Mihalopoulos in charge of regulating charter schools? He seems to know more about what they’re up to than the officials who are supposed to keep an eye on them.

Legislators and Governor Quinn created the charter commission in 2010, after receiving pressure from boosters who didn’t think districts outside of Chicago were approving enough charter schools.

The leading legislative backer for the commission was state senator Heather Steans, a north-side Democrat whose banking family has championed charter schools for years. Her sister, Robin Steans, is the executive director of Advance Illinois, an influential organization of charter school boosters.

I called Senator Steans for comment, but she didn’t respond.

The commission has overturned the Chicago school board once—in 2013, when it reversed the board’s decision to reject a charter for Concept, the organization that operates the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park.

That’s the school whose leaders fired a teacher who was eight months pregnant after she tried to organize the faculty into a union. The union sued the school, which eventually agreed to pay the teacher $40,000 while admitting no wrongdoing.

The Chicago school board denied Concept’s request to open campuses in McKinley Park and Lincoln Square, concluding that its application was incomplete. But the state commission overturned the board, ruling that new Concept schools are in the best interest of the students the board is “designed to serve.”

Presuming, of course, those students never want to organize a union.

In addition to the question of why such charter schools don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else, there’s another critical issue here. The more money CPS is compelled to dole out to charters, the less it will have for its dead-broke regular schools.

With enrollment falling in Chicago, it’s an ideal time to stop opening charter schools.

Because of the commission’s decision, Concept will open a school next year on the southwest side that won’t have to answer to the school board or Mayor Emanuel—making it the envy of every regular public school in the city. (Concept has pulled back on its plan to open a Lincoln Square branch.)

It didn’t have to go down like this.

In the meantime an outfit called Virtual Learning Solutions proposed opening online charter schools in 18 towns, including Naperville, Aurora, Saint Charles, and Elgin.

The school boards in those suburbs not only rejected the applications, but counterattacked.

The boards convinced state rep Linda Chapa LaVia to introduce a bill imposing a one-year moratorium on the creation of online charter schools. It passed the General Assembly last year and the Virtual charter proposal was dropped.

Think of it as the state saving the state from the state.

By the way, Chicago would be exempt from the moratorium. I guess no one will save Chicago from itself.

Chapa LaVia has subsequently introduced a second bill that would strip the commission of its authority to overrule school districts on creating new charters.

So it looks that at some point we’ll see a clash between Senator Steans and Representative Chapa LaVia. I’m sure I speak for many constituents in Steans’s liberal north-side district when I say: “Go, Linda, go!”

It will be very interesting to see which side Mayor Emanuel takes as Chapa LaVia’s bill heads for a vote, probably in the spring. We know he almost never sees a charter school he doesn’t like. But this is also a chance to make sure the state isn’t chewing up more resources for Chicago’s schools.

Talk of peace and joining hands is cheap. It’s time to see if the mayor and his board will deliver.