Charter schools provide choice

DeWayne Bartels
Diana Deatherage Pearson, a Peoria native, runs a charter school in Kenosha, Wis.

When Diana Deatherage Pearson appeared before the Peoria Optimist Club in late November, she asked those seated before her to do a single task.

"Stop thinking for 10 seconds,” she said.

“Not so easy, is it?” she said, laughing.

“We can’t stop thinking. Thinking is as natural as breathing.”

Pearson, a 1974 Richwoods High School graduate, said she hopes to make thinking about charter schools as natural as breathing.

Charter schools, she said, are not well understood in Central Illinois.

Charter schools are public schools, she said, that exist under a charter, or contract, from the school board in the city. Pearson explained they are tuition-free.

Like public schools, they are accountable for improved student achievement and fiscal responsibility.  

However, a charter school differs from a normal public school in that charter schools do not have to operate under the same rules and regulations as regular public schools. Charter schools have more flexibility and control over curriculum, Pearson said. They do not have to use the same textbooks as the rest of a school district. 

“Charter schools provide a choice. They can be virtual or online schools,” Pearson said. 

“They bring competition to education.”

Pearson said her experience with her charter school has been a positive one.

She said the accountability they have hanging over their heads is a great motivator.

“You can’t get complacent in a charter school,” she said.

She said the types of teachers drawn to a charter school are risk-takers and innovators.

“These are places where people can shake things up,” Pearson said.

There are 4,100 charter schools across the nation, with only 60 allowed in Illinois under state law.

District 150 is working on a charter school to be located on Moss Avenue. 

Charter schools are just the thing to get educators, students and parents motivated about education, according to Pearson.

“I have to provide a really good school to attract students and keep them,” Pearson said.

Pearson, an educator for 26 years, opened and is principal of the Dimensions of Learning Academy in Kenosha.

Pearson opened the school nine years ago. She said she is a “staunch” advocate of public education, but saw charter schools as a different means to an end.

“Charter schools are a positive innovation in education,” she said.

A political creature

Charter schools in Illinois have a political past.

In 1992, Minnesota opened the first charter school in the nation. By 1995, the growth of charter schools exploded, but not in Illinois.

It was not until 1996 that the Illinois General Assembly passed a charter school law. Illinois law limits the number of charter schools across the state to 60 — 30 allowed in Chicago, 15 in the suburbs and 15 downstate.

The longest period allowable for an initial charter in Illinois is 10 years, with five-year renewals after that.

“Because of that, charter schools are very accountable,” Pearson said.

The school board giving the charter can also take it away. Charter schools exist on state aid, just like public schools. For every charter school student, the school receives, on average, about 82 percent of the state aid for a student. From that money, the charter has to make its payroll, pay for books and supplies and normal school expenses.

Pearson said the saving monetary grace that allows charter schools to open and get started is federal money earmarked for the cause.

Chicago, she said, has embraced charter schools because they often raise the property values of properties surrounding them,  improve test scores, and can specialize in preparing students for particular career fields.

“Charter schools are a blank slate," Pearson said.

“They are what you make of them.”