You’ve got to love the Journal Star Editorial Board. Only they could make a cogent case against something, then endorse it, defying all reason. That they would endorse the proposed charter school was a foregone conclusion. One is hard-pressed to think of any project supported by Caterpillar and/or the Chamber of Commerce that they’ve opposed.
After seven paragraphs outlining all the problems with charter schools (most don’t live up to their hype, the district is broke, private funding is unlikely to be sustained, etc.), they take all of two paragraphs to say, basically, “oh, hang the problems, let’s do it anyway!”
Nonetheless, we’re inclined to support this charter school, if not as enthusiastically as some would like. First, the investment is relatively small on a $140 million-plus budget. Second, this is an experiment worth trying, to see if charter school proponents can accomplish more for less cost-per-pupil, as they claim. Third, while some have noted the contradiction in opening a new school just after closing others, arguably this isn’t just a new building but a different approach.
Ultimately, we just can’t discount the frustration of parents who want to stay in the city but not at the expense of their kids’ future success. In many ways Peoria lives or dies on District 150. The locals have lost faith. Something must be done.
A relatively small investment? District 150 ended its last fiscal year $8.9 million in the red. $6.5 million of that deficit came from the education fund. With overspending that serious, the district should be looking at more cuts, not new expenditures. And make no mistake: the charter school is a new expenditure. Even ardent charter school proponents admit that the first few years will end up costing the school district until the district can consolidate and close another middle school.
Forgotten, it seems, is the fact that the charter school is not only a middle school. It’s planned to be a high school also. When it’s fully functional, it would serve grades 5 through 12. It would start in year one with grades 5 through 7, then add one grade each year. When the high school grades are added, how will the district recoup the federal and state money they lose? Close another high school? If so, that should be planned now, not reacted to later.
But reaction is District 150’s M.O., and charter school proponents know it. So they’re putting tremendous pressure on the school board to make another all-too-common hasty decision, before the board can fully consider the ramifications. They’ve contrived a crisis: “The Caterpillar grant is contingent on the District 150 Board of Education awarding the charter for the 2010-2011 school year at its first meeting in January.” Peoria’s mayor has met with the Secretary of Education, and now dangles the carrot of federal “Race to the Top” money for districts who have established charter schools. Ominously, this money is not guaranteed. A media blitz has touted the messianic nature of charter schools and implored citizens to demand one from the school board. No doubt many citizens, believing the ads implicitly, have complied — the same way they complied with requests from the same group to raise their own sales taxes one quarter of a percent during a recession.
There are good reasons the charter school proponents would want this decided now, and not next year. First, there’s the fact that property tax bills have not come out yet. After the electorate suffers the shock of seeing this year’s property taxes spike due to District 150’s seven-percent increase, they might not be as eager to demand the district spend money it doesn’t have. Second, a new, permanent superintendent will be hired by next year, and who knows what he or she may think of the charter school initiative?
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that charter school proponents have the best of intentions. I believe they want to see the school district improved and children better educated, and I believe they think this is the best way to do it. But good intentions don’t make their plan wise or their tactics justifiable, nor does popular support make their plan more affordable.
In the end, the school board needs to make a prudent decision based on cold, hard facts and harsh, fiscal realities. The district can’t afford another impulsive decision based on flimsy reasoning like that of the Journal Star’s editorial board.