Illinois Supreme Court to Hear Charter School Appeal

Published February 1, 2005

The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to hear in 2005 the appeal of a proposed Illinois charter school whose application was rejected by the local school district and state board of education. The state’s highest court has agreed to consider just 6 percent of cases presented to it for hearing this year.

Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc. (CCS), an Illinois 501(c)(3) organization, operates a YouthBuild program in Rockford, Illinois. YouthBuild programs are known throughout the country for their GED and construction trades training for unemployed high school dropouts.

In June 2001, CCS proposed to its local school district to offer a charter school based on its YouthBuild model. As a charter school, the program would offer dropouts a high school diploma and better access to post-secondary education.

Rockford School District #205 denied the proposed charter.

Following the procedure described in the Illinois Charter School Law, CCS appealed the local school district’s decision to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The ISBE review panel found CCS had met the letter of the law, as “the charter school or charter school proposal (i) is in compliance with this Article, and (ii) is in the best interests of the students it is designed to serve.”

Denial “Without Merit”

The state panel confirmed that the Rockford School Board’s reasons for denying the YouthBuild proposal were “without merit” and remanded the proposal to the state superintendent for direct approval by the state board.

In May 2002, however, in a 4-4 vote, the ISBE ignored the recommendations of its review panel and the state superintendent and failed to override the local board’s rejection of the charter school proposal.

In its denial, the ISBE hinged its decision on a single statement: “The proposed charter school is not economically sound for Rockford District 205 in view of the serious financial problems that currently exist in the district.”

Appeals to the Circuit Court and Appellate Court upheld the State Board of Education decision to deny the charter.

In November, the Illinois State Supreme Court agreed to hear the Rockford case. In their petition to the court, CCS attorneys contended the three issues of the case make it a “perfect storm” for the high court.

The CCS petition states the denial of the charter threatens to render Illinois’ charter school law a “dead letter.” CCS also contends it is highly unlikely that “any other school will have the wherewithal to present this case to this Court again.” Finally, the petition says the case provides “a clear record from which to review the central issue … without any side issues that could prevent the Court from addressing the heart of the matter.”

Veto Over Charters

The matter in question is whether the ISBE or a school district can have “an absolute veto over any charter proposal based on a district’s existing financial condition.”

The petition questions the state board’s “undue emphasis on some factors, while minimizing or ignoring other factors, to achieve a result that is plainly contrary to the intent of the General Assembly and the purpose of the [Illinois Charter School Law].” It argues the ISBE has failed to use the General Assembly’s standard of “liberal interpretation.”

The petition notes that in a previous court decision, Board of Education of Community Consolidated School District No. 59 v. Illinois State Board of Education, an ISBE decision to overturn a local district denial was upheld. The court noted in that case that the “charter school had satisfied 13 of the 15 factors of the Charter School Law.” The court also pointed out, “The [charter school] Act specifically provides that its provisions are to be interpreted liberally to support its findings and goals. ‘Liberal construction means to give the language of a statutory provision, freely and consciously, its commonly, generally accepted meaning, to the end that the most comprehensive application thereof may be accorded, without doing violence to any of its terms.'”

The Rockford School District contends the CCS proposal to provide educational and job-training services to dropouts would attract students back into the school system and therefore cost the district money. In its review, the ISBE panel reminded the district that school funding “belongs neither to the charter school nor to the district … the state funding should be seen as belonging instead to parents and taxpayers.”

Both the Rockford School District and the Illinois State Board of Education are listed as defendants in the case. Neither has commented or offered conciliation.

Some 85 percent of Illinois public schools are currently in deficit spending. According to the petition, “Many, if not all, of the districts face the same financial problems of which the district complained in this case.”

According to the CCS petition, the question of whether a charter school can be denied simply because it would “cost” a district money is central to more than 15 current cases in which school districts are fighting against Illinois charter schools. The requested reversal of the ISBE charter denial, the CCS petition states, “is necessary to give meaning and effect to the Illinois Charter Schools Law.”

Paul H. Seibert ([email protected]) is director of Charter Consultants and editor of Illinois Charter School Facs.