Proposed charter school rankles Oak Park residents

River Forest mom wants to open area charter by 2019

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

A movement led by a River Forest woman to start an elementary charter school somewhere in the western suburbs has drawn considerable backlash among Oak Park residents in opposition to the proposal. 

As the director of charter growth and support for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, Allison Jack gets paid to help start charters — a fact that many of her critics say makes her efforts less than genuine. 

"It's clear as a bell that her job is to grow charter schools — that's her interest," said Steve Krasinsky, an Oak Park resident who is one of the founding council members of a group called Oak Park Call to Action, a progressive activist organization that sprouted in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's election last November. 

The group is battling on many fronts, Krasinsky said, with the fight against this most recent charter proposal being just one of them. The group is hosting a screening of Backpack Full of Cash, on Sept. 30, at the Lake Theatre. Narrated by Matt Damon, the film explores "the real cost of privatizing America's public schools," according to a summary on the film poster. 

Jack, however, countered that she's just getting paid for what she'd do for free. She believes a charter could succeed in eliminating the stubborn racial equity gap between black and white students that has persisted in Oak Park for generations. 

"This came out of looking at different parents' experiences that the needs of all kids aren't being met," she said in an interview on Monday. 

Jack has two children in public schools but said she would send them to the charter school she's working to establish through a group called the Western Educational Community Action Network (WeCan). 

According to its website, WeCan is apparently designed to be the vehicle for driving up grassroots support for the idea of a charter school somewhere in Forest Park, River Forest, Maywood, Melrose Park, Broadview, Bellwood, Berwyn and Oak Park. 

The school would "have a racially conscious/culturally proficient faculty and leadership team to provide our students with a robust and culturally relevant curriculum that includes restorative practice/restorative justice, social-emotional learning [and] project-based learning," among other features listed on WeCan's website. Jack said her goal is to open the school in the fall of 2019.

Erin Fountain, a WeCan member and Oak Park mother of four African American sons, ranging from adults to middle-school students, said she was attracted to Jack's charter model based on her frustrations putting her children through Oak Park public schools. 

"I've experienced it at all levels," Fountain said, referencing what she described as the segregated nature of Oak Park's public school system. "I've had frustrations with the school system from the very beginning." 

My Tang, the mother of a 3-year-old who lives in Forest Park, said she would "absolutely consider sending my kid to this charter." Tang said she's attracted to the project-based learning concept that Jack has been proposing but stipulated she isn't against public schools.

"I'm a product of traditional public schools," Tang said. "I'm not against public schools whatever. It's just that all kids learn differently." 

Jack said she's currently in the phase of gauging community support for the school and has been holding informational meetings and "family meet-ups" in area suburbs over the last few months. So far, she said, no defined location has been identified for the charter, but Jack said that she isn't ruling out locating it in Oak Park. 

She's looking to get parents who currently send their kids to public school to basically commit to sending their children to the proposed charter, which would select students based on a lottery system. The per-pupil funding that would have gone to the public school district would follow those students to the new charter. 

Jack, however, would first have to get approval from local school districts in order to receive that per-pupil funding. If a school district votes against allowing part of its budget to go the charter, Jack could appeal the decision to the Illinois State Charter School Commission.  

According to documents related to a decision made by the commission to deny the appeal of a proposed charter in nearby Maywood, the commission "may reverse a local school board's decision to deny a proposal to establish a new charter school when the commission finds that the proposal (i) complies with the Charter Schools Law and (ii) is in the best interests of the students the charter school is designed to serve."

The law requires that charter proposals "demonstrate a high level of local pupil, parental, community, business, and school personnel support," that it set levels of student achievement which are "rigorous" and "feasible," and that it's "designed to enroll and serve a substantial proportion of at-risk children." 

Both Jack and Fountain have conceded that the opposition to a charter from community members in Oak Park has been stronger than they expected. 

"This may or may not happen," said Jack. "We're looking for commitments from between 40 and 50 parents. It's pretty hard to get parents to stand up and say, 'I want to send my kid to a charter.'" 

Karen Yarbrough, an Oak Park parent of three Oak Park Elementary School District 97 students and a board member of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said instead of taking money from public schools, Jack should work on improving them.

"I'm not happy at all about the prospect of a charter school," Yarbrough said. "The people I'm talking to feel the same way. Charters have really devastated the Chicago Public School system. I wanted to get away from that. I get it. Oak Park schools aren't perfect, but we need to work to make them better for all kids in our community." 

Cassandra West, a 25-year resident of Oak Park and a freelance journalist who once wrote regularly on education issues in the Chicago area, said that Jack's proposed charter is the first time "I've seriously heard about a charter school" attempting to make inroads in Oak Park. 

West said that she once applied for a communications position with the INCS, but didn't get the job. She said that, at the time she applied, she didn't know very much about charters. But knowing what she knows now, West said, she's relieved.

"Looking back, I'm glad I didn't get the job," she said. "I've read too many stories where across the country many districts have gone to all charters and they're not what they cracked up to be. There are too many reports that go against the idea that charters are great and that they're this panacea. They often don't help students of color, even though they say they do." 

One study in particular, a report releasead this summer by the NAACP's Task Force on Quality Education that Krasinksy and Yarbrough cited, stated that charter schools "were created with more flexibility because they were expected to innovate and infuse new ideas and creativity into the traditional public school system. However, this aspect of the promise never materialized." 

Last year, the NAACP unanimously passed a resolution "calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion until there is accountability and transparency in their operations," according to the report. 

Jack, however, said that her charter proposal would model the best practices of non-traditional schools with stellar academic track records, such as the Austin, Texas-based Acton Academy, where staples of conventional education, such as homework and standardized tests, are de-emphasized in favor of techniques like the Socratic method, in which learning is embedded in open dialogue and continuous questioning. 

Critics of the proposal, though, said that the problems with Oak Park public schools aren't so intractable that they can't be addressed and fixed without dismantling the notion of public education. 

"Why put taxpayer money into a privatized school?" West said. 

Krasinsky and Yarbrough said that they're relieved that Jack hasn't gained much traction with her proposal in Oak Park, but they expressed some concerns with what they considered to be holes in the community's armored stance against the charter.

"I don't hear any parental support for this charter, which I was pleasantly surprised about," Krasinsky said. "We had people passing out flyers at Oak Park Farmers Market and, to a person, they were generally against it. And the meetings [Jack has hosted] haven't been very well attended, which is telling. At the same time, however, we're still concerned because we know there's a tremendous amount of money behind her."

Other critics of the proposal said they were worried by the fact that the president of INCS, Andrew Broy, is married to District 97 school board member, Keecia Broy. 

When reached by phone on Monday, however, Broy said that she could not speak on behalf of the entire D97 school board or INCS, since she isn't an employee of the organization. She added that any questions about people's reservations over the relationship should be directed to INCS. Andrew Broy could not be reached for comment.

Chris Jasculca, D97's senior director of policy, planning and communication, emailed a formal statement from the school board on the matter. 

"We are aware of the proposed plan by WeCan to open a school in the fall of 2019 that would seek to draw students from several suburban communities, including Oak Park," the statement reads. "We will continue to monitor this situation, and also use this as an opportunity to further educate ourselves about the charter school application process and the role that public school districts play in it."


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Reader Comments

24 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Comment Policy

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 29th, 2017 12:51 PM

@Rick, I'm with you that nonprofit doesn't always mean organizational sainthood nor responsible use of funds. That's why websites such as Charity Navigator rate 501c3's and even post their tax returns in one easy to find place. Here for example is the IL Network of Charter Schools' (INCS) profile. The 990 tax return not only shows their financial info, but also includes things like how much their executives were paid. (See Schedule J, Part II, page 34 of their 2015 tax return.) This is very much PUBLIC information.

Jakob Eriksson from Oak Park  

Posted: September 28th, 2017 1:42 PM

If charter admission is based on a lottery system, this seems unlikely to succeed economically or academically. For funding success, you need to admit only Oak Park / River Forest students. For academic success, a small school needs to deny admission for weak students... Now, a charter school targeted explicitly at weaker students, and limited to Oak Park / River Forest only, might be an interesting concept.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 28th, 2017 10:25 AM

Exactly Brian. That is the precise business model big pharma, colleges & universities and hospitals utilize.

Brian Souders  

Posted: September 28th, 2017 9:28 AM

Jacek, the way to profitability without delivering satisfactory results is through government help. Just use taxpayer $$$ to prop up the organization.

Holly Barnes  

Posted: September 28th, 2017 9:23 AM

"I'm not against public schools whatever. It's just that all kids learn differently." A lot of special ed students "learn differently," and historically they have not been well served by charters.

Rick Boultinghouse  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 3:45 PM

Jim, I'm glad you corrected me. I admit I know little about the tax code. It irks me when folks throw around the "not for profit" term as if it it made that organization saintly. Probably as much as it irks you when folks like me misquote the tax code.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 3:28 PM

Had to speak up here. @Rick, is either misinformed or misstates, hopefully unintentionally, that the 501c3 designation "greatly shields shield the organization from sharing vast amounts of financial information to the public." 501c3's all make their financial info available via their 990 IRS tax returns. Moreover, as a charter school, 501c3 or not, they receive public funding and so are subject to Freedom of Info Requests (FOIA) like any public agency. I'm not a fan of charters, but at least Rick should get his facts straight when he tries to make a point.

Rick Boultinghouse  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 3:02 PM

Leslie Sutphen, from what I see on WeCan's website they seek to apply for a 501(c)(3) status. That is not a "not for profit" designation, that is a tax designation as a charitable organization, that can be for educational purposes, among other things. Being a 501(c)(3) has no bearing on a companies desire to make a profit. The NFL and IKEA are both 501(c)(3)s, as is the Donald J. Trump Organization. We all know at least two of those organizations seek a profit. What a 501(c)(3) designation does, though, is greatly shield the organization from sharing vast amounts of financial information to the public. If a charter claims to be a not for profit, they need to qualify that.

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 2:47 PM

Stephanie - The WJ also endorsed Ralph Martire for the D90 school board even though Mr. Martire is a union lobbyist/consultant for the teacher unions. If they're OK with that hyper conflict of interest, I'm sure someone's husband's employer is small potatoes.

Stephanie Bailey Socall  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 2:27 PM

District 97 has an elected school board, accountable to parents and taxpayers. Charter schools drain taxpayer funds from truly public schools, do not allow taxpayers any say in school policy or funding, and are often anti-union. I would like to know why the D97 union and the Wednesday Journal both endorsed Keesha Broy for the D97 board earlier this year without mentioning her strong connection to charter advocacy (i.e. her husband's job).

Rick Boultinghouse  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 1:40 PM

Jacek, If education were a typical commodity, I'd buy that idea. Education is not a typical commodity. Not all students are going to be great students by any metric. Some require more supports than others, and as such, education can't be looked at with a market lens. Same with Police, Fire, our Court system, public works, etc. When for profit schools approach education they seek to minimize costs and maximize profits. Market forces create winners and losers. Which students should lose, those that need less support? Those that need more support? The owners damn sure aren't going to lose. That is the fundamental problem with looking to market solutions to do something that can't really have losers. At least with public education, there is a mechanism at the local level to address issues, as imperfect as it can be.

Jacek Lazarczyk  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 1:21 PM

Rick, how a for profit school would turn a profit if it didn't deliver quality education that parents sought? Any business, if it wants to stick around profitably, needs to deliver excellent products or services, no?

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 1:10 PM

WeCan wants to implement a "multi-district" public charter. The problem with that is the disparities in per student funding between districts. As the pro-referenda folks made vividly clear earlier this year, D97 spends way more per pupil than neighboring districts such as SD88 and SD89 in Maywood/Bellwood/MP. So OP/RF students would be perceived as more profitable customers in this multi-district charter model. Plus SD88 and SD89 receive 60-70% of their funding from state and federal sources, whereas D97 is funded 80% with property tax dollars. So any OP (or RF) students would take their mostly property tax funded education dollars out of district to the charter school. If she wants to keep this "alternative" choice available in a single struggling school district, that's fine, but her multi-district plan would push our extremely high property taxes even higher. No sale...and this is coming from someone who otherwise supports the idea of charters.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 12:32 PM

D97 & OPRF fail the majority of the students trusted to them; the kids are not all right and many families are very unhappy by the overall poor outcomes of attending public schools in Oak Park. The money grab exists at public. private and charter schools ; it's all about the adults benefitting over the kids being happy, successful, and thriving.

Leslie Sutphen  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 12:15 PM

Alice Caputo - Thank you for the facts on Chicago charter schools. I learned some things I did not know. I am already of the mind that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of charter schools, but I think a lot more work needs to be done on ensuring that they meet certain standards before they are approved.

Alice Caputo  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 12:03 PM

Everyone knows that these films have a built-in bias perspective, whether they are "pro" or "con" charter schools. If you agree with the film, it's "powerful and informative" if you disagree it's "propaganda." Speaking strictly on my experience with Chicago, charter schools (CS) wouldn't exist if CPS wasn't such a mess. Here are the facts surrounding CS in Chicago. 1. Most non-profit. 2. Some unionized, most not. 3. Graduation rate higher than CPS. 4. Some are excellent. 5. Some are subpar. 6. Most subpar close. 7. Public funds available per student. 8. No public funds for capital cost of acquiring facilities. 9. Some CS are corrupt/mismanaged, most are not. 10. CPS is mismanaged with a history of corruption. 11. CS students are chosen by lottery/application not "cherry picked". 12. CS have policies that remove disruptive students, so low performers who happen to be disruptive get expelled and sent to CPS. 13. Most CS don't have adequate staff and facilities for physically and mentally challenged. 14. Most CS students and their parents are looking for a safe place to learn and advance themselves, after years of fear and frustration with CPS. IMO, I like choice. There is room for all forms of educational institutions. Home schooling, no schooling, parochial, other private, charters and of course public.

Nick Polido  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 9:21 AM

Alice B.-The Idea that Davis Guggenheim director for, Waiting for Superman, The Inconvenient Truth and a biographical portrait of Barack Obama is a participant in this blatant propagandist film is questionable at best! Look no further than Ms. Randi Weingarten (leader of the AFT) who was quoted in her July address saying the movement to give parents more say over where their kids go to school has its roots in "racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia and homophobia." The Dogma lives loudly within this one??.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: September 27th, 2017 7:46 AM

Why is this person from River Forest lobbying for a charter school in Oak Park, instead of placing it in her own town, or in the neighborhood where such school is actually needed? The purpose of charter is to provide an alternative for students trapped in failing schools, which is not the case in Oak Park. And so, it would make sense to build it in Maywood, or Berwyn, close to where they live, instead of busing the kids here.

Alice Bethany  

Posted: September 26th, 2017 5:46 PM

Leslie, CPS funds charter schools and this is the controversy. If it is private, why are public funds being sunk into it? It really is a scheme IMO to destroy one of the last solid unions in the country--the teachers' union. I watched at least half of the documentary called "Waiting for Superman" and I had to turn it off because it just seemed like blatant propaganda to me. What is attractive about charter schools is the relative freedom that teachers have. But they do not make as much starting as the average public school teacher (from my understanding) and do not have the same protections. If they were not publicly funded, I would not have any objections but they seem to exist in a netherworld.

Leslie Sutphen  

Posted: September 26th, 2017 5:27 PM

I haven't made my own mind up about Charter Schools, but I always think that competition is a good thing - keeps people on their toes and prevents complacency. I am not sure about this claim that most charter schools are for profit - that is not what I have heard from the charter schools with which I am familiar. Are there any reliable statistics on that? I am very discouraged about finding accurate analysis of this - including the Backpacks Full of Cash film.

Rick Boultinghouse  

Posted: September 26th, 2017 5:06 PM

Alex, Most charter schools work as for profit institutions. As such, their interest lies in making money first and foremost, not educating kids. To compound that, most operate such that local communities have little to no oversight over the schools operations. Further, evidence strongly suggests they are not better at educating kids than public schools, remember, their obligation to their shareholders is not how well the kids do; it is about ducats in their pockets. To answer your question, though, I guess it is about control over what kids are taught. With a public school, there is a mechanism built in that ensures the school operates in the interest of the home district, aka control over instruction. Oak Park recently chose to exercise that control by voting to approve two referenda that plotted our control over our school district for the future. Can you do that with a charter if you are upset as a parent? What is your recourse, as a parent, if your child is taught by staff chosen purely based upon how cheaply they can be employed? What recourse does a communbity have when they cherry pick their students to educate the brighter students, leaving students that need more resources to the Public School system. What recourse do you have as a parent when staff potentially violate state law and the parent company refuses to address the situation outside of firing someone vs addressing a systemic issue that could recur? What oversight do you really have, probably the same as the oversight you have with AT&T.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: September 26th, 2017 4:28 PM

Why are Oak Park leftists so afraid of more alternatives for Oak Park parents and their kids? Is it really a matter of financing or is it more a matter of control over what children are taught and what they learn?

Dave Slade from Oak Park  

Posted: September 26th, 2017 4:20 PM

And so it begins.

Alice Bethany  

Posted: September 26th, 2017 3:48 PM

What about a homeschooling network with stay-at-home parents specializing in their areas of expertise? Then the money issue would not be as important.

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