The who's who of online charter school plan

Second of three parts

Suburban school board members from Algonquin to Plainfield received a proposal February 14 for a virtual charter school that would cross 18 school district boundaries. It was a Valentine's Day surprise from Virtual Learning Solutions, a fledgling nonprofit that had incorporated with the state just a month before.

Board members reviewed the proposal and prepared hundreds of questions for public hearings scheduled throughout March and April. Most of those questions could not be answered by representatives of the applicants.

Elected officials across the region suspect Virtual Learning Solutions board members of disregarding local decision-making power, preparing instead for an appeal option with a state commission.

In Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, board member Chris Stanton said the presentation by VLS Secretary Ted Dabrowski didn't even inspire the confidence to let the proposed charter applicants “baby-sit my dog,” let alone teach the district's children.

“In my mind, and this is my personal opinion, it's just another attempt to siphon off dollars from a public school system that's already stretched beyond its means and divert these funds to these folks that have all these high-level contacts in the state,” Stanton said.

Not for profit?

In Illinois, charter school applicants must be nonprofits. Because of that, online education company K12 Inc. cannot open its own school here. But it could be contracted by Virtual Learning Solutions to run and manage the proposed school.

School board and community members across the region have questioned how Virtual Learning Solutions members determined which districts it wants to serve. A key suspicion has been that K12 Inc. made the choices, a theory that seems to hold water based on comments from the applicants.

Sharnell Jackson, the president of the four-member volunteer Virtual Learning Solutions board, is the only board member involved in selecting K12 Inc. as the company that would provide curriculum and school management services for the proposed Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley.

Jackson researched virtual learning options for Chicago Public Schools almost a decade ago and helped develop the Chicago Virtual Charter School, which got its charter in 2006 and is run by K12 Inc.

“I searched all over the United States to identify who had the best online learning capabilities and solutions, and every time I would keep coming back to K12,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, it was the best I could find.”

Jackson said she has kept in touch with K12 contacts in the years since Chicago's virtual charter school opened and heard there was interest in the Fox Valley for K12 products, which led to the concept of a regional school.

The other Virtual Learning Solutions board members said they signed on in December, before the nonprofit filed Jan. 8 as a corporation with the state of Illinois.

Mike Skarr, a former president of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, is vice president of the Virtual Learning Solutions board. During a public hearing on the charter school plan in Oswego, Skarr said an attorney friend called him on behalf of K12 and asked if he'd be interested in learning more about the company and its plans.

Former VLS Vice President John Rico, too, said he received a call about the Virtual Learning Solutions board. He knew Skarr from Skarr's time on the state board of education, and had crossed paths with Jackson while she was at CPS, where his company, Rico Enterprises, is considered a preferred vendor. Effective Friday, Jackson said Rico was no longer a board member but he could not be reached to explain why.

Eric Kohn, treasurer of Virtual Learning Solutions, said he got involved with the board in December. He previously knew Dabrowski through the Illinois Policy Institute, where Kohn's wife serves as senior manager of external relations.

Dabrowski did not return multiple calls for comment. But at the District 300 meeting, he offered this explanation for how he came to join the virtual learning group: “I ran myself into a group of people looking to do something innovative and at the same time we ran into K12,” Dabrowski said.

But Rico and Skarr both said K12 Inc., was the chosen vendor when they joined the board, and Jackson said K12 representatives suggested the Fox Valley school first.

Randall Greenway, vice president of school development for K12 Inc., referred questions about the company's involvement in the project to Jackson.

What is K12 Inc?

K12 Inc. is a Virginia-based company that develops and offers kindergarten through 12th grade online courses and runs charter schools in 33 states. The corporation 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.

K12 CEO Ronald Packard received close to $4 million in total compensation in 2012, according to SEC filings. A year earlier he made more than $5 million.

Corinne Pierog, a school board member in St. Charles Unit District 303, said the proposed money allocation is troubling.

“We try to keep our administrative costs low because most of our tax money should go directly into student support,” Pierog said, adding that she worries K12 would be tempted to cut corners on education to better please its shareholders.

The Virtual Learning Solutions board members, though, insist their desire is to offer students in the region an online education that could be just what they need to succeed. They say K12 is the company to help them do it.

Not a 'rubber stamp'

The Illinois Charter School Commission is made up of nine members appointed by the state board of education based on recommendations by Gov. Pat Quinn.

It was created in 2011 at the suggestion of a task force of education leaders, including three current commissioners — Chairman Greg Richmond, the executive director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Secretary Paul Swanstrom and Commissioner Jaime Guzmán.

In its report to the legislature, the task force recommended an independent commission because of an anti-charter track record by local school boards and the state board of education, which previously had appeal authority in charter school decisions. Authors of the report pointed to the relatively low number of charter schools in Illinois as evidence of a bias.

Before the state charter commission ruled on any appeals, there was a concern that it would be too quick to approve new charters and overrule local boards, shifting the purported bias in the other direction.

The majority of commissioner bios do indicate they are charter-friendly.

Besides members who served on the task force, three other commissioners have worked in education reform organizations supporting charter schools or have helped found charter schools. The remaining three commissioners work in education, or are involved in education initiatives but not necessarily charter-focused ones.

Still, the commission has reviewed 10 appeals since its creation and overturned a school board decision just once.

“We're hardly rubber-stamping approvals on proposals,” Richmond said. “We have high standards. We want more kids to get the option of a great education, but if you bring a proposal to us, it better be a proposal for a great education.”

Lingering concern

Regardless of the promise of high standards, suburban educators are still worried. If not because of the affiliations of commissioners, because of the process for the appeal.

Virtual Learning Solutions President Sharnell Jackson said the proposal they submitted to school boards is not set in stone.

“There is room to add things and to make it a success,” Jackson said.

Jackson points to a push she made for blended learning — where students are educated both online and in-person — when she helped present the Chicago Virtual Charter School proposal. Instead of unspecified field trips mentioned during public hearings for the Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley, Jackson said she fought for a requirement of weekly sessions with teachers in the Chicago school, which has been held up for its success at the high school level. But suburban board members did not get to hear that plan before they all voted no.

In fact, the entirely virtual design has no money allocated for transportation costs — a major point of contention for school officials.

“Really the model as presented in the Virtual Learning Solutions proposal is probably one of the least effective virtual learning models that we've seen,” said Batavia School Superintendent Jack Barshinger.

He worries a significantly different proposal could be given the green light by the state charter commission without coming back to the local boards of education. That would mean the state commission would decide the terms of the contract, it would say how much the school district must pay per student, and it would decide whether to renew the charter once the current one expires.

“That would just be such an injustice to the local school boards,” Barshinger said, “to be overridden on a proposal that they never got to see.”

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