SPRINGFIELD — The Chicago Teachers Union and other charter critics spoke out strongly in opposition to a proposal that would increase the funding that school districts must provide for charter schools, squaring off against supporters who want equal funding with traditional public schools.

The Illinois House Executive Committee voted 10-1 to approve the proposed bill, which is still far from a done deal. It still must pass the full House, make its way through the Senate committee process and win majority support in the Senate before it can be delivered to Gov. Pat Quinn for his consideration.

House Speaker Michael Madigan filed HB 4277 in January as a “shell bill,” void of content. But Madigan handed sponsorship to Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago) last week and waived procedural deadlines that have killed most other bills that originated in the House and have not yet reached the Senate.

The vote came despite a furious campaign by the union and other organizations that fear the bill will divert millions of dollars away from neighborhood public schools. But already in Chicago, the district is moving toward equal funding for charter schools through its district-charter compact, which calls for equalized funding, more charter accountability and other measures. Cities that participate in the compact, an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are eligible for a pot of $20 million in implementation funding that the Gates Foundation will dole out over the next several years.

Opponents of the bill also pointed out that, while charter schools would receive an equal share of a district’s tax dollars, the neighborhood schools would not share in the corporate and philanthropic contributions that charter school organizations often reap.

HB 4277, as amended, would require districts to provide at least 95%–up from 75%–of the district’s per capita student tuition to charter schools, multiplied by the number of students enrolled in the charter. Student tuition is the dollar amount a district would charge a non-resident student and is based on the district’s operating costs per student. CPS operating costs are $13,078 per pupil, according to the district’s 2011 state report card.

Burke argued that the bill is “an issue of fairness,” adding that his main concern is the disparity in the salaries of teachers, which are often lower in charters than in traditional schools in which teachers are CTU members. “They start out fairly equal, but by five years [on the job] you see a great difference in their salaries,” he said.

Advocates for charter schools sought to reinforce Burke’s fairness argument. Opponents pointed out that neighborhood schools already suffer from lack of funding, a situation that would worsen if the bill becomes law.

Elizabeth Purvis, CEO of Chicago International Charter Schools, claimed that charters “are part of the public school system.” CIC schools serve 9,000 students in Chicago and Rockford, she said, with 86% of them from low-income families and 95% of them minorities.

Charters must hire state-certified teachers and meet all state and federal requirements, maintain financial stability and meet any local regulations, she said. “Over 50,000 students in public charter schools [in Illinois] deserve equal treatment under the law,” Purvis said.

Meanwhile, the union charged that the bill would “force school districts to divert more funds from neighborhood public schools to charter schools. While public schools are funded almost entirely by taxes, charters receive private money from corporate privatization proponents.”

“Now is not the time” to increase charter funding “to the detriment of our neighborhood schools,” CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates told the committee, referring to the $700 million budget deficit that CPS says it faces in the FY 2013 budget.

Gates also cited national research showing charters have “not been particularly effective” at educating students and that they often “exclude English language learners and special education students.” A widely-publicized 2009 Stanford University study found that only 17% of the nation’s 5,000 charter schools reported academic gains “significantly better than traditional public schools,” while 37% performed worse and 46% made “no significant difference.”

Illinois Education Association lobbyist Jim Reed objected that HB 4277 would affect agreements reached in negotiations between charter schools and their school district boards. A spokesman for the Raise Your Hand organization complained that neighborhood schools in Chicago are already underfunded, citing large class sizes and the lack of music and art instruction.

HB 4277 will not achieve the parity in teachers’ salaries that Burke desires, the Raise Your Hand witness said. “We’re not against equalized funding … [but] there’s no guarantee [in the bill] that the money will go to salaries.”

Jim Broadway is founder and publisher of State School News Service.

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