In a small suburban district outside of Chicago, the city of North Chicago is proving how public school districts can offer choice to families in a fiscally responsible way.

North Chicago Community Unit School District 187 serves over 3,500 students, 88% of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch, 27% of whom are English Language Learners, and over 12% of whom have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  The District has undergone a unique transformation since 2012 when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) intervened in the District and replaced the elected school board with an Independent Authority and with a Financial Oversight Panel.

In 2015, the District received an unsolicited charter application from LEARN Charter School Network, which sought to open its second campus in North Chicago. As part of the charter authorization decision process, Afton Partners worked with Chief Education Officer Ben Martindale, Deputy Superintendent Joel Pollack, and legal counsel Nicki Bazer of Franczek Radelet to determine how they could authorize another school in a fiscally responsible way with stagnant enrollment across the district.

Martindale and Pollack worked tirelessly to negotiate a compromise with the charter operator and tough decisions were made on both sides using Afton’s advice and analytics on potential solutions.  Ultimately, a 300 student charter school was authorized. To ensure cost neutrality, the District closed a district-run school and laid off dozens of staff members.  Also toward cost neutrality, the charter operator agreed to a new funding formula that is student-need based, ensuring funding equity for students no matter if they attend the charter operator’s schools or district-run schools.

“Unlike other charter schools in the state, the LEARN charter schools in North Chicago will receive funding that is based on the needs of their students as opposed to a set dollar amount based on a percent of the tuition charged to out-of-district students. Under this arrangement, the entity teaching a student that costs more to educate — because of special education needs or their at-risk status — will get more money than they would if the student did not fall into any of those categories.” – North Chicago, LEARN reach deal for second charter school, Chicago Tribune, May 2016.

Many urban and rural school districts across the country are faced with a similar need to drastically improve student achievement and respond to strong demand for school choice, despite declining enrollments and plaguing fiscal challenges. With the U.S. Department of Education’s stronger focus on expanding choice under the new administration, the agreement led by Martindale and Pollack on behalf of the North Chicago school district provides a best practice example on how to balance choice and fiscal responsibility.