Supporters say they are the change an ailing education system needs, but it's a contentious topic. In this report, the first of a two-part series, Illinois Public Radio's Rachel Otwell visits a charter school and explores the differing opinions about them:
There are about 20 kids in this classroom at Ball Charter School in Springfield. Their ages range from five to seven years old. Not much seems different here versus any other school. Students are breaking into groups for activities related to reading and writing. Wyatt, a student, explains what's going on:
"We read these books so we can be a better reader. And when we read to someone, that's how we practice our fluency, and then when we go to listen to reading, which is right behind you - we do that to hear fluency,” says Wyatt.
Wyatt is reading to his teacher, Chantel Thompson. She says his fluency makes him an ideal mentor for his peers, something this school is known for emphasizing.
“You know that's one thing Ball Charter is ... known for, is the multi-age aspect. So you've got your kindergartens paired up with your first graders, and just because they're a first grader doesn't mean they are always the person who's in charge, so you get to see that mentoring process," says Thompson.
The idea is that kids retain knowledge better when they have to explain what they've learned to their peers.
The first charter school opened in 1997. Ball Charter was the first to open outside of Chicago not long after. Most students who attend them in Illinois are minority and low income, especially in Chicago. While the debate over charter schools paints them in a broad stroke, they're all different. The charter school in Decatur focuses on character development, and a charter in Chicago called 'Namaste' emphasizes holistic wellness.
One argument about the schools has been over results. A recent report from Stanford University is mostly positive in that regard. It shows students in charter schools generally learn more than those in traditional schools. Dev Davis oversaw the study.
"At the end of the school year we measure the difference between the charter school student and the traditional student. And we say, in this case, the difference is it would take seven more days of learning for the traditional student to catch up to where the charter school student ended to school year," says Davis.
However, a recent state report shows the four year graduation rate for students at traditional schools is nearly 25 points higher than at charters, though most charter schools are in Chicago which has a higher dropout rate than the rest of the state.
And the debate continues as to whether charters are a fix for troubled schools.
"The type of innovation I think that we all hoped for out of the charter movement that would inform public education in general in my opinion just hasn't come from there," says Bob Hill.
He is in a temporary stint heading Springfield public schools, and was also the superintendent back in 1998 when Ball Charter was founded. Hill says he wishes charter schools pushed the envelope more in areas like structuring the school day and the use of technology.
And there are other problems, according to some. Whether for or against charters, funding is an ongoing dilemma. Stacy McAuliffe, with the advocacy group the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says charter schools are at a disadvantage, because districts in Illinois are only required to fund them at 75% of what they do other public schools. She says regardless, charters are growing:
"I think now charters have really proven themselves to be a powerful and positive force in education and when it comes to student outcomes and when it comes to what parents are doing when they vote with their feet and that has become challenging and in some respects threatening."
Those who find charters most threatening may be teacher unions. Union leaders argue that charters take money away from regular district schools. Tension also stems from the fact that most charter teachers don't belong to a union.
Still, charters have been arguably successful in Illinois. In the past decade the amount of students enrolled in them has grown from about 13,500 to nearly 60,000. Tuesday, we'll look at why the Illinois statehouse may be an unfriendly place for the growth of charters right now and what their future may ultimately look like.