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posted: 10/6/2011 5:00 AM

Suburban link missing in charter schools panel

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

The charter school experiment has had mixed results in the Chicago suburbs. With a handful of exceptions -- perhaps most notably in Pingree Grove and Grayslake -- they have not been widely embraced nor demonstrated exceptional success. But identifying the cause of that likewise has not been simple.

Is it because people are generally happy with the public schools in their suburban communities? Is it because of the struggles charter schools face getting approved, and the challenges they have to overcome from traditional school districts that lose students and state money to them? Is it because they just haven't produced a model yet that can excite suburban parents and educators?

All of these and more may be factors. They deserve study and careful oversight. So, it was a positive step this week when the Illinois State Board of Education announced nine inaugural members of its State Charter School Commission. But there was a shortcoming -- a clear lack of representation from the suburbs west and northwest of Chicago.

The commission has an important objective -- to monitor charter school performance and consider applications and appeals of proposed schools. And the charter school process it oversees -- buoyed by a more than doubling last year in the number of schools permitted in Illinois -- is both challenging and intriguing. Approached properly, the schools may offer the promise of innovation in some suburban communities, and some representation on the commission could have been valuable in expanding the proposals here.

Not that the group approved this week is necessarily inherently weak. To the contrary, as ISBE Chairman Gery J. Chico said in a prepared release announcing the new members, they "provide a diverse range of expertise and real-world experience."

They include a former CEO of Caterpillar, a former high school district superintendent, education activists, educators and business leaders. But in terms of geography and interests, the closest representation for the suburbs appears to be found in the former superintendent of Joliet Township High School District 204 or a lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association, who is from Evanston. This while four of the nine members have specific ties to the city of Chicago.

Since this region encompasses the second-largest school district in the state and a broad diversity of elementary, high school and unified school systems, one would think the panel could use more of its participation. Indeed, that energy and influence might be just what is needed to address the financial challenges facing both charter and traditional public schools and to develop a broader and more productive commitment to careful experimentation with educational methods. Let's hope the panel keeps uniquely suburban interests in mind and looks for ways to encourage suburban participation.