What comes next for proposed virtual charter school in suburbs?

More than 100 suburban school board members voted against an online charter school in April that was proposed to serve students from Algonquin to Plainfield.

One board member abstained from the vote after missing the public hearing on the plan.

Not a single school official voted in favor.

Despite what would seem to be a clear-cut mandate, the fate of the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley does not end there. Applicants — board members of the fledgling nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions — have an appeal option. A state board may discuss the case as early as Wednesday, May 15.

And even with such unanimous opposition throughout the region, local educators fear the State Charter School Commission may find reason to overturn the local school boards’ decisions.

The proposal

Virtual Learning Solutions presented its virtual charter school at public hearings in March and April as one that would cross 18 school district boundaries.

The four-member, all-volunteer board plans to contract with K12 Inc., a leading online curriculum company that manages virtual charter schools in 33 states. K12 has come under fire across the country for low student performance on standardized tests, its schools’ grading practices, high student turnover and large corporate profits.

Sharnell Jackson, president of the Virtual Learning Solutions board, said the recent bad press for K12 Inc. has helped her team recognize where the company’s greatest challenges are. Jackson said the regional school needs an experienced operator, which she said K12 is, regardless of its reputation.

“Those concerns are valid,” Jackson said, referring to local distrust of K12. “We use that as an opportunity to learn from that so we make sure we have an even more successful model because we understand where some of their shortfalls may be.”

In the virtual charter school, students would be expected to sign on each day to complete lessons from their computers. They would have access to virtual classrooms where they could communicate with other students and a teacher. Materials for hands-on assignments would be delivered to their homes, as would computers if the students didn’t have one already.

Each student would have an “individual learning plan” and be expected to have a “learning coach” at home for extra support.

At public hearings in March and April, K12 representatives described field trips and extra curricular activities as part of the package, along with such iconic school events as prom and graduation.

But school board members took issue with the design at every turn.

How could teachers verify attendance? How would students get from their homes to the meeting points for field trips? How could the school provide for students with disabilities or English Language Learners?

District administrators asked hundreds of questions, many of which went unanswered at meeting after meeting.

The opposition

Charter schools are public schools run with public education dollars that follow students from their original school to the charter. Virtual Learning Solutions’ proposed budget included a funding estimate of $8,000 per pupil to run its school.

Money is an ever popular starting point for debate on charter schools. In this case, the majority of funding for the school would be directed to K12 Inc., a for-profit company that answers to shareholders and that paid its CEO close to $4 million in 2012 and more than $5 million in 2011, according to SEC filings.

John Laesch, co-chairman of Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice, has helped lead opposition to the proposed charter school, organizing a forum in March focused on K12’s profit motives.

“Its primary constituency is not children that our public schools serve,” Laesch said at that forum. “The purpose of K12 Inc. is only one purpose and that is to make money.”

Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson attended the forum and was stunned to hear that some districts in the suburbs pay $10,000 per pupil, an amount that could be directed to K12 Inc. if the suburban school opens.

Johnson said later that virtual charter schools in North Carolina pay $3,200 per pupil while those in her home state of Tennessee pay $5,200. She was wide-eyed at the news that K12 could see almost double that amount per pupil in Illinois.

“When you don’t have a brick and mortar school, you don’t have a cost of the building or the cost of janitorial services and keeping up football fields,” Johnson said. “That’s why they’re raking it in. ... Should public tax dollars be going to something like that? I don’t think so.”

Local districts worry that problems caused by shrinking state aid payments and growing numbers of poor students only will be made worse by a new charter school getting their funding.

But proponents of charter schools paint a picture of greedy school districts loathe to have competition for students and, in turn, tax dollars.

Jackson, the Virtual Learning Solutions president, said local districts have focused entirely on funding.

“Whenever you hear these complaints, the first thing that comes up is not what is good for children, what is in their best interests — it’s all about money,” Jackson said.

In this particular case, supporters of the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley, also describe the opposition as being unwilling to bend for 21st century education.

But neither argument tells the whole story, at least not for everyone.

In districts across the region, board members have emphasized their commitment to using technology to reach more students. Many have programs in place where students have access to online courses with in-class obligations that put them face-to-face with teachers.

And in Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, K12 Inc. is part of that effort. District 300 uses courses offered by K12 for its online learning program as does the district’s existing charter school, Cambridge Lakes, in Pingree Grove.

D300 board member Steve Fiorentino said before he voted to deny the charter that he was disturbed by the questions that were not answered in the proposal and at the public hearing.

“They sent us things that had fairly impressive ideas, creativity and credentials,” Fiorentino said. “I am personally very supportive of the virtual learning concepts. It’s exciting. It’s part of the future and there’s no doubt about it. But not this model.”

The appeal

The legislature created the State Charter School Commission in 2011 with a change to the school code. The move took appeal oversight away from the state board of education, giving the final decision on charter proposals to an appointed board of nine. Jeanne Nowaczewski, executive director of the commission, said the appointments are made jointly by the governor and the state board of education.

The commission meets next on Wednesday. Technically, the Virtual Learning Solutions board has until Friday to file its appeal but if it files before the meeting, certain process questions could be answered that day.

Nowaczewski said, at this point, the commission has advised the charter applicants to file individual appeals responding to the denials from all 18 school districts.

“If and when the applicant files more than one appeal, the commission will review the procedure and staff will make a recommendation for the procedure to be utilized,” Nowaczewski said. “Likely we will recommend a consolidation of the appeals.”

If that happens, each district will still have the right to its own legal counsel, to present briefs, to be interviewed for the appeal and to hold a public hearing, Nowaczewski said.

She added that all 18 appeals would be voted on individually with 18 separate written decisions to go with them. The consolidation would simply keep each appeal on the same timeline.

Members of the school community across the region are watching the state commission cautiously, not sure of what to expect.

Chris Stanton, a board member of District 300, said Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 representatives treated the public hearings as a formality on their way to the state commission. He said their lack of preparation at the public hearings implied they were looking past the school boards from the beginning.

In fact, when asked recently about the school board votes, Virtual Learning Solutions’ then-Vice President John Rico said, “I don’t think it has to do with the districts.

“It’s not about that,” Rico said. “It’s about what the Illinois commission says. If the districts side with us, that’d be great, but it still comes down to the Illinois charter commission and what they decide.”

As of Friday, though, Rico was no longer a charter school board member. He could not be reached to explain why.

Commission Chairman Greg Richmond, executive director and co-founder of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said the commission will take about two months to consider the virtual charter school proposal. He said commissioners will have the chance to request additional information from the applicants — an issue for those watching from the local level.

Jack Barshinger, superintendent of the Batavia school district, worries Virtual Learning Solutions representatives will respond more fully to commissioners than they did to school board members and administrators.

“I don’t understand the double standard,” Barshinger said. “The school boards are denied the answers in the proposal but yet the charter school commission is allowed to ask and get information when that was absolutely denied to the local school board.

“The state charter school commission could approve a proposal our board never saw.”

The Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley would give students their lessons through online modules. Suburban school boards all have rejected the concept, but the fight is not over yet. courtesy of
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