Last month, DeRonda Williams was tapped as the new chair of the State Charter School Commission. The nine-member body is appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) from a slate nominated by the governor.
The commission’s main job is to review appeals from charter schools that failed to win permission from a local district to open, or are contesting a district’s decision to close them.
In the past, the commission saw appeals only from new charter schools. But for the first time in its four-year history, the commission is taking up appeals from three existing charter schools in Chicago: Amandla Charter School in Englewood, Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Sizemore campus in West Englewood and Bronzeville Lighthouse.
All three are seeking to reverse the School Board’s decision to close them at the end of the school year for poor performance. The commission has until early March to evaluate the appeals, conduct public hearings and make a decision.
Williams has served on the commission since March of 2013. ISBE approved her appointment just one day after the commission overturned a CPS decision not to allow Concept Schools to open two new campuses. The schools eventually opened under the commission’s jurisdiction. Before her time as a commissioner, Williams served as an evaluator who helped review school finances on three other appeals cases.
Her day job is running a consulting business that works with education organizations, including charter schools, across the country. (She limits her work in the Chicago area to avoid conflicts.) She specializes in charter school finance and executive recruiting at charter schools with a focus on diversity. Previously, she was the finance director at the KIPP Foundation and spent a decade overseeing finances at Pearson Education.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the commission’s work?
We’re seen as this group just overturning a lot of local districts’ decisions, and that is the farthest thing from the truth. Less than 10 percent of the appeals that have been submitted to us have been approved, so only 3 out of 42.
But a lot of them get withdrawn before they even make it to a vote.
But they get withdrawn because they learn about our rigorous process and they see that we have a very high bar, and so they do withdraw. But the benefits of them even applying for an appeal is they leave with a better understanding of what they need to do if they’re going to resubmit. And if there weren’t an appeals process, there would be more people who end up filing a lawsuit. Which would be costly for the district, costly for them, and really just eat up everyone’s time.
Because people assume we approve a lot, they don’t think that we have a high bar. And we have a very rigorous process. We look at three elements: academics, financial and organization. And we conduct a very comprehensive review, including site visits.
The third misconception is that we are made up of all pro-charter professionals. And that is not true. There are nine commissioners. We have, I think, a very good mix of experience in both education and civic leadership. We have people with backgrounds in the charter space, as well as from districts. And our last two decisions, the vote to renew Prairie Crossing, was 5 to 4. Same thing with LEARN-Waukegan. It is not a slam dunk, even for the three that were approved and the one that’s been renewed.
Is there any guidance the governor’s office has given the commission, besides what’s written in statute, as far as mission or vision?
No, we work very independently. I did get a chance to meet with the Secretary of Education, Beth Purvis, and the State Superintendent, Tony Smith, since I’ve become the chair. I think philosophically we’re aligned with wanting to see more high-quality charters throughout the state and we’re all committed to making that happen. But, we have not gotten any marching orders from the governor, we follow our legal requirements and our bylaws.
This is the first time the commission has to take up the appeal of an existing charter. There are families who are confused and wondering, “Will my school stay open or should I be moving my kid?” What is the commission’s role in looking at these appeals?
We’re going to apply the same process that we do for new schools; we’ll adjust as needed. We have 75 days to make a decision and we’re going to meet that deadline, get through the process as quickly as we can and try to work with the local district, just to ensure there’s a place for those students.
After our interview, Williams sent an email to clarify her position: [For] the placement of students resulting from CPS non-renewals or revocations, responsibility really rests with the district. My hope, as a commissioner, is the district will place 100 percent of the students in a school that is of higher quality than the school they attended.
Are you going to look at CPS’ charter accountability policy when you’re determining whether it’s a quality school and should stay open? Does what CPS says matter when you do your evaluation?
We do look at it, but we put everyone through our evaluation framework.
Does the availability of quality options where the school is located play a part in your evaluation? Two of the schools are in Englewood and many parents say “There are no good options here.” Or is it solely: Do you have the finances, the academics, the ability to operate?
We do consider that, but those three elements are really the key. If we come to the decision that we agree with the district, I think the district will really need to make sure that those students have a quality option.
What role does public input play in your decision-making process? How is the public hearing weighed versus the evaluation you do?
There is a multi-step process, and the public hearing is definitely one part of the process when members can come and voice their opinion on the proposed charter school. And we definitely listen to that. I think one of the big concerns with one of the proposals that we were reviewing (LEARN-Chicago Heights) was lack of community support… If there are major concerns about something that’s going on, then we will investigate.
Concept Schools are being investigated for suspected fraud of a federal grant program. Could you take back your 2013 ruling — which allowed Concept to open two campuses under the commission’s jurisdiction — and say, we don’t give you permission to operate?
My understanding is they are investigating Concept’s corporate. And of course our two schools are part of Concept’s organization. I will just say that we will definitely monitor the situation and if we find that our two schools have been involved in any way, we will definitely deal with that.
In Chicago right now, there is some discomfort that Illinois just got a lot of money to expand charter schools. Does the commission’s job change at all when we have all this federal money flowing in?
I don’t feel like it changes at all because ultimately applicants still have to go through their local district, and if they do not get approved, they can come to us. So while there is this money, it still has to pass our bar. If the money can be used to help applicants build strong applications, we should see more quality applicants get approved by their district. If for some reason there are districts that don’t approve them just because they are anti-charter, then we’d see more [appeals]. But our process would not change.
How are you working to raise the profile of African-American women, like yourself, in the charter school movement?
I think there is definitely a lack of diversity in leadership positions in charter schools, given that we serve black and brown children. The way that I help with that is through my consulting work; I do recruiting. And I specialize in diversity and I feel very strongly that when I find a pool of candidates for a client, whether they specifically ask for it or not, I am always very intentional about submitting a diverse pool of candidates in the hopes that one of the black or brown people that I submit will be selected for that role. And I have a pretty good track record. About 85 percent of my placements have been people of color.
What are some of your biggest takeaways since you started doing that work?
I have a lot of clients who say ‘I’ve had a problem recruiting people of color, there just aren’t many out there.’ And it’s frustrating because we are out there. I find that if organizations really put the time and effort in, whether it’s hiring someone who is of color to help tap talent for them, it can happen… It shouldn’t just be a number and it should be finding the best person. But sometimes finding the best person is finding someone who will bring a different point of view and can see things through the lens of the people that you’re serving.
Is there anything you want to do as the chair that you haven’t seen done in the past?
I think there are a lot of things I want to continue: the quality of work we’re doing on the appeals process, making sure it’s fair, timely, rigorous. I want to continue being a respected statewide charter authorizer. Where I think we could have a bigger impact is one of the things we were charged to do by the legislators: develop model policies and practices in quality authorizing and share those with authorizers across the state.