Educators on virtual charter schools: Hold off a year

Several suburban superintendents have taken time away from end-of-year activities in their districts in recent weeks to travel to Springfield. They are pushing for a one-year moratorium on the establishment of any new virtual charter schools.

State Rep. Linda Chapa La Via of Aurora proposed the moratorium in March as an amendment to the charter school code. It would halt progress on new virtual schools until April 1 of next year and require the State Charter School Commission to prepare a report for state legislators about student performance in virtual schools, costs associated with them and issues of oversight.

“What we'd like to do is slow the process down,” Chapa La Via said. “It's gone too fast.”

The charter proposal that prompted the call for a moratorium is for the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley, which would give students in kindergarten through 12th grade the option of learning from home.

Chapa La Via said the moratorium would put a hold on review of the proposed school, which was rejected last month by all 18 school districts it encompassed from Algonquin roughly along the Fox River to Plainfield. Charter applicants from the fledgling nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions are expected to file their appeal with the state charter commission this week. That commission has the power to uphold or reverse the decision of the local school boards and, minus the moratorium, would make its decision by August.

Michael Bregy, superintendent of Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, was among a few school leaders who made the drive to Springfield both times the moratorium was scheduled in committee meetings. He didn't end up testifying but said he spent both days in the capital explaining to lawmakers why the moratorium should be approved.

It's not because of an opposition to virtual learning, Bregy said.

District 300 already has online options for its students. But Bregy said the cart is coming before the horse on virtual charter schools, which are regulated at this point by the same rules governing brick-and-mortar schools.

Especially with funding, Bregy said, that doesn't make sense. The school code's charter section includes a requirement for districts to pass along 75 to 125 percent of its per-student spending to the charter schools they choose to attend.

“It doesn't even take into consideration that there's no requirement for brick-and-mortar buildings, transportation, food services, none of that,” Bregy said.

The moratorium was approved by the House April 17 and members of the Senate Education Committee approved it May 8, which means the next step is a vote by the full Senate. Gov. Pat Quinn would have to sign the bill into law.

Proponents of the moratorium say the charter school code was written before the concept of virtual schools became an option. But Sharnell Jackson, president of Virtual Learning Solutions, points to existing virtual charter schools and said people are just looking for excuses to oppose the Fox Valley school.

Cambridge Lakes Charter School in District 300 and the Youth Connection Charter School both offer high school online education while the Chicago Virtual Charter School is open to students in grades K-12.

“This area has been well-researched and -documented,” Jackson said. “There's a moratorium that's being put on this because school districts are just resistant to change and skeptical.”

While the multi-district virtual charter school proposal included an opening date of Aug. 14, Jackson said her team expected all along it would open the following year. She said if the moratorium ends next April it won't hamper their timeline.

But Virtual Learning Solutions Secretary Ted Dabrowski has been pushing full steam ahead to block the moratorium through his work as vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. Dabrowski posted a report on the Illinois Policy Institute website May 6 that says the moratorium would slow the state's move “into the 21st century,” effectively ban all new charter schools and amount to discrimination against suburban and downstate schools, where the moratorium would apply. Dabrowski did not return multiple calls for comment.

A video produced by the Illinois Policy Institute's sister organization, Illinois Opportunity Project, encourages people to call their senators and representatives and oppose the moratorium after warning it will “ban new charter schools from using cutting edge online learning programs.”

“The Internet is exploding with innovative new ways to help our kids learn, yet politicians in our state want to ban many of these tools, including online tutors and virtual learning courses,” the narrator says.

The video does not mention the moratorium would last only one year.

Cindy Hamblin is the director of the Illinois Virtual School, which is run by the Illinois State Board of Education and offers courses to students who don't have access to them in their own districts. The Illinois Virtual School is not a stand-alone institution, but a supplement to the education offered by districts across the state.

Hamblin, while officially taking a neutral position on the moratorium under the direction of the state board of education, said the pause it would give could ensure quality standards and guidelines are in place for virtual charter schools.

Hamblin worries virtual learning more generally has gotten a bad rap during the discussion about the proposed charter school. She said online education is often very effective but supported the idea of reviewing questions of funding, teacher certification and curriculum expectations before opening new virtual charter schools.

Diane Rutledge, executive director of the Large Unit District Association, of which many schools affected by the virtual charter school proposal are members, has been working in Springfield to garner support for the moratorium since it was presented.

“It's not about anybody saying charter schools are bad or virtual schools are bad,” Rutledge said. “It just says let's take a timeout and have a little breather.”

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