Illinois agency overrules Chicago schools on charters

CHICAGO – A relatively unknown state agency has overruled Chicago Public Schools and ordered the district to approve and fund two new charter schools run by a group supported by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The schools are run by Concept Schools Inc. The Des Plaines-based organization operates 30 publicly financed privately-run schools in the Midwest, a majority of them in Ohio, as well as the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park and Quest Charter Academy in Peoria.

Concept is the first and so far only charter to benefit from a decision of the Illinois State Charter School Commission, created in 2011 through legislation sponsored by Democratic State Sen. Heather Steans. The schools are now the target of a legislative proposal to eliminate it, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan, said the speaker did not intervene on behalf of Concept’s Chicago charter schools. He said, though, that the purpose of the two-year-old state agency was to ensure that local districts couldn’t always block the formation of charter schools. Madigan voted in favor of the legislation that created the agency.

Chicago Public School officials denied Concept’s bid to open new schools last year, citing “fluctuations in academic performance” in recent years and poor test scores. While its students’ ACT scores are higher than the CPS average, they are still below the average considered the benchmark for college readiness.

A spokeswoman with CPS said the board of education declines “weak and inadequate applications.”

But the state commission overruled the board and ordered the city school system to give higher per-pupil funding to the two new concept schools to be located in the city’s McKinley Park and Austin neighborhoods. They are getting 33 percent more funding per student than the city school system gives other charters.

Five of nine agency board members approved the decision.

Madigan, who is chairman of the state Democratic party, visited the Math and Science Academy last year. In a video posted by the school on YouTube, Madigan praised the school, which was founded and run by Turkish immigrants.

The Sun-Times reported that Madigan has taken four trips in the past four years to Turkey. On those trips, he was hosted by the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation and the Chicago Turkish American Chamber of Commerce, according to disclosure reports the speaker has filed.

The speaker’s trips were among 32 visits legislators made to Turkey from 2008 through 2012, state records show. The speaker and other House Democrats made 29 of those trips, which were described as “educational missions.”

The state charter school commission derives more than half of its budget from private contributors, who are major backers of charter schools.

Brown told The Associated Press that Madigan “had no intervention on behalf of Concept on the commission.” Brown noted that the commission was created “as a mechanism to stop local districts from turning down all these charter applications.”

The legislation, which passed by near unanimous margins in the state House and Senate, established the agency’s nine-member board, which is appointed by the State Board of Education after receiving recommendations from the governor.

State Rep. Linda Chapa La Via, who sits on the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, says the relationship between the agency and its donors is “incestuous,” and in November introduced legislation that would eliminate it. Chapa La Via was influential in the legislature’s move to place a one-year moratorium in place on the creation of online virtual charter schools last year.

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