On January 25, 2018, the First District Appellate Court ruled in Board of Education of Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 v. The Illinois State Charter School Commission et al., 2018 IL App (1st) 162084, that the Illinois State Charter School Commission (“Commission”) properly granted a proposal of the Lawndale Educational and Regional Network Charter School (“LEARN”), after Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 (“District 60”) denied the charter proposal.
The Illinois Charter School Law (105 ILCS 5/27A-1 et seq.) provides that charter school proposals must be initially submitted to the local school board for consideration and must contain certain information about how the charter school is proposed to operate and meet the needs of students. If the local school board votes to deny the charter school proposal, the charter school applicant may appeal to the Commission, which then considers the proposal using the same process and timelines for review as the local school board. If the Commission reverses the local school board’s denial, the Commission itself becomes the charter school’s authorizer, meaning it oversees the charter school rather the school board and the charter school also becomes its own local educational agency.
In this case, LEARN submitted a proposal to District 60, which the school board voted to deny. LEARN appealed to the Commission and, after consideration, the proposal was approved. District 60 filed a complaint against the Commission, the Illinois State Board of Education, and LEARN, alleging, among other claims, that (1) the Commission and ISBE failed to adhere to the statutory timeline of the Charter Schools Law, (2) the charter school proposal was deficient in several manners, including failure to identify two viable locations for the school and failure to include an educational program for ELL and special education students, and not in the best interests of the students the school was designed to serve, and (3) the Commission committed multiple violations of the Open Meetings Act at the meeting when it voted to approve the charter proposal.
The Appellate Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision to dismiss all of District 60’s claims, upholding the Commission’s grant of LEARN’s charter. As to the timeline claim, the court found that noncompliance with the statutory timeline did not result in a loss of jurisdiction over LEARN’s appeal because the timelines were directory, rather than mandatory. Next, the court reviewed each of the alleged deficiencies in LEARN’s proposal and rejected each of District 60’s allegations in turn, finding generally that the Commission has superior expertise and experience to evaluate the substance of the proposal. Finally, the court rejected the claim that the Commission violated the Open Meetings Act, because District 60 filed its claim directly in court, rather than filing a request for review with the Attorney General. As a result, the court was only authorized to invalidate a final action of the Commission if it occurred during closed session. Here, it was undisputed that the Commission took final action to approve the charter proposal in open session, thus, District 60’s requested relief was not available.
This case provides useful insight into how courts will evaluate decisions of the Commission concerning charter school proposals. As demonstrated in this case, courts are likely to give significant deference to the Commission’s evaluation of a proposal, and not re-evaluate the evidence absent an obvious deficiency.