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updated: 3/19/2013 1:01 AM

Dist. 303 hears online charter school plan

Dist. 303 hears online charter school plan

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A virtual charter school that could siphon about $600,000 of state funding away from St. Charles Unit District 303 received a lengthy cross examination from district officials Monday night. But people at the meeting left it with just about as many questions as when they walked in.

Virtual Learning Solutions, a not-for-profit run by a five-member board, is petitioning 18 boards of education across the region for a charter to open the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox Valley. Virginia-based K12 Inc. would manage the school and provide the curriculum.

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K12 Vice President Randall Greenway pitched the school to an audience of district administrators, school board members and local taxpayers. Greenway spent much of his presentation dispelling "myths" about how charter schools function.

The proposed school would be bound by many of the same rules as other public schools in Illinois, Greenway said. The school is open to all who wish to enroll. There is no cost to parents or students. All students who enroll ultimately take the same state exams they would in any other public school.

The main difference is the vast majority of the curriculum is delivered via a computer. A teacher works from home, providing lessons to students who are at their own homes. The charter school would provide the computer equipment if needed.

"It's not out to replace public schools in the area," Greenway said. "But every child is different, and parents deserve the right to have options in determining the best educational option for their child."

Students with social issues at school or who don't find the local curriculum challenging enough, or who may prefer the virtual interaction are the most likely to attend the charter school, Greenway said.

His group expects to pull a minimum of 450 students at both the high school and elementary level from 18 total school districts in the Fox Valley to make the school viable.

Along with those students would come an average of about $8,000 per student to fund the school. That funding would all come from money that currently goes to the traditional public schools in the Fox Valley, including District 303.

The district projects a loss of about $600,000 if the charter school draws the expected number of students.

But District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann said it's not the loss of money or the concept of a charter school that has him worried. His main concern is the quality of the product the students would receive at the proposed charter school.

He and other district staff members asked a laundry list of questions about money spent on teachers, special education and bilingual help. There were also concerns about the performance of charter schools run by K12 in other states, including a recent lawsuit K12 settled for nearly $7 million.

"I'm not an opponent of charter schools," Schlomann said. "They can be effective. The question for me is whether K12 is the right vehicle to deliver that education."

Greenway defended the criticism as unfounded based on outside reviews of the performance of the schools and the allegations of poor performance both in news reports and in case filings.

District 303 school board members must now weigh the opinions and take a vote within the next 30 days about approving the charter school. It's unclear what a "no" or a "yes" vote would mean.

District staff members were unclear if the ultimate fate of the charter school is also tied to how the school boards of the other 17 Fox Valley schools vote. A "no" vote or multiple "no" votes by those boards would leave the charter school with the option of appealing to a state charter school commission for reconsideration.

A "no" vote by the commission would then leave the charter school with the option of going to court. All could be costly paths for the local districts voting against the school.

In contrast, school boards voting in favor of the charter school may have a chance to negotiate both their financial losses and oversight of the school.

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