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Roundtable puts spotlight on state budget, charters

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit Oswego hosted State Superintendent Christopher Koch an educatiroundtable AurorThursday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, Oswego, hosted State Superintendent Christopher Koch at an education roundtable in Aurora on Thursday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 21, 2014 6:15AM

AURORA — Two local legislators warned of a decreased state education budget for next school year ahead of a State Board of Education meeting in a few days.

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) spoke at an education roundtable she hosted Thursday in Aurora with State Superintendent Christopher Koch, which was attended by about 30 residents.

“The budget is so in dire straits, it’s going to be a challenge,” Kifowit said at the roundtable.

Koch said the State Board of Education had been in communication with the legislature about “what can be done to have more efficient delivery of education in the state.”

The State Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the budget at their meeting in Springfield on Jan. 22.

Illinois legislators also tasked the State Board of Education with re-examining school funding formulas, Koch said, which he expected would result in new bills cropping up to change existing structures. He also acknowledged that recent state funding cuts had resulted in difficult staff layoffs.

“It takes a toll if we keep reducing because you’re losing personnel that work with children,” he said.

On Friday, state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), who chairs the House’s elementary and secondary education committee, also said she expected a decreased state education budget.

“We had a bad year,” she said. “It’s going to be worse than last year. Chris [Koch] can fight for all these millions of dollars more, but there is no money there. They’re going to be losers.”

“We have underfunded them by so much, “ she continued. “We should be ashamed of ourselves. We say [that we support education] but then we don’t put the money behind it.”

Charter schools

Koch fielded several questions from roundtable attendees about the proliferation of charter schools in Illinois and laws to regulate them.

Koch said he was aware that legislators would consider a bill to change the structure of the Illinois State Charter Commission.

The bill, introduced in November in the House by Chapa LaVia and in the Senate by Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester), would disband the state commission and give the State Board of Education the power to review charter school application appeals.

“I don’t know where that will go,” Koch said.

Last year, 18 local districts denied a virtual charter school application, which was appealed to the Illinois State Charter Commission. The districts had feared the commission would overturn their decision, when the legislature passed a law banning all new virtual charters until April 1, 2104. The commission ultimately upheld the districts’ decisions.

Kifowit said that she and Chapa LaVia are working on legislation that would give local school boards more authority when charter proposers come to them looking to establish a school.

Chapa LaVia said the legislation is a back-up plan if the bill disbanding the commission doesn’t pass. If a district denied a charter proposal and the commission overruled the decision, she said, the new legislation would give school districts the option to put the proposal up for a referendum. If local residents voted it down, the proposal would be denied.

Koch said the State Board of Education also is working on proposals for the legislature this year that would establish standards for charter schools regarding English-language learners and special education students.

Chapa LaVia said she is working on the legislation with the state board.

“There is going to be a lot of work in that world [of charters],” Chapa LaVia said.

Koch said that not all charter schools perform well and that poorly performing charters “have to be held accountable.” He said next week he plans to recommend the closure of one charter school.

Mark Rising, a school board member at Indian Prairie 204, told Koch he believed the problem with charter schools is that “legislators don’t understand them.”

That’s a statement Chapa LaVia agrees with. She plans to hold a subject matter hearing for education committee members to give them a thorough history of Illinois schools — including traditional, parochial, blended, virtual and charter schools — as well as funding formulas and mandates.

She has asked several state agencies to help her compile information that is “nonpolitical, nonpartisan” to share with legislators.

Common Core Standards

Koch also spoke about the implementation of the new, more rigorous Common Core Standards in Illinois, emphasizing that districts still have control over what they teach.

They are not curriculum, they are not telling you what you need to teach or how you need to teach it,” Koch said. “You’re not getting curriculum, you’re getting frameworks. How this is done at the district level is still a district decision.”

He said that many districts are not in the same phase of implementing the standards and predicted that “not all students are going to meet them, and certainly not within the first few years.”

He also said that as districts begin to pilot the new assessment that aligns with the Common Core, known as the PARCC, there are serious concerns over districts not having the needed Internet capabilities to administer the test online. Only an estimated one-quarter of schools can offer online instruction, he said.

“Our online capacity in this state and our technology infrastructure is not where it should be,” he said.

Ahead of the upcoming two-day state board of education meeting, Koch also addressed an ongoing controversy over a proposal to change the cap on special education class sizes, which will be considered on Jan. 23.

The board first considered a proposal last February that would remove the class size cap on special education rooms and would eliminate the current 70-30 ratio of general to special education students in general classrooms, opting to let districts decide the breakdown themselves.

The board then solicited public comment on the topic — garnering a large response from both supporters and opponents.

Koch said that the board had evaluated data that showed the cap did not always help.

“When you have a one-size-fits-all template it creates unintended consequences,” he said. “Anytime you touch on a special education issue you can count on a lot of feedback. This broke all records in terms of the amount of feedback the state board received.”

He said the biggest concerns he’d heard were about whether districts would “do the right thing” regarding class sizes during economic hard times.

Koch said the proposal the board worked on and is now considering was expected to go online over the weekend.

“We think we have a balanced proposal,” Koch said.

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