Chicago, Illinois, April 29, 2013 - You may have heard about the plan to establish an Illinois "virtual" charter school for 18 suburban school districts and the new bill that could impose a one-year moratorium on digital schools. If you are on the Illinois Policy Institute's mailing list, you may have also gotten emails from officials lashing out at the proposed legislation, even going so far as to ask its subscribers to file "witness slips" against the bill Friday.
But have you heard that officials at the Illinois Policy Institute, a 501c3 tax-exempt organization, have a financial stake in this new "virtual" charter schools plan?
There are other questions that deserve to be asked and answered.
Ted Dabrowski, Vice President of Policy at Illinois Policy Institute, is listed as secretary for Virtual Learning Solutions, the new entity formed to manage the virtual school for K12, Inc., which runs online schools nationally. Eric Kohn, whose wife Rebecca serves as Senior Manager of External Relations for Illinois Policy Institute, is listed as treasurer.
Is this the same Eric Kohn who is the longtime spokesman for embattled Morton High School District 201 board president Jeff Pesek of Cicero and has past contracts with Cicero president Larry Dominick?
Pesek has been under fire since it was first reported that he and his brother, Craig, had been caught on FBI surveillance tape discussing the bombing of a Berwyn business with the man later convicted of the crime, Mark Polchan, a key associate of mob boss Michael Sarno. The Peseks' Chicago nightclub, Ontourage, has been under investigation after Pesek admitted that convicted drug dealer Enrique "Henry" Hendon was a "silent" investment partner in the club. Kohn regularly uses the troubled club to hold paid events for his non-profit organization, America's Future Foundation.
If he is the same Eric Kohn, he was also the operations manager at Urquhart Media, which received hundreds of thousands in questionable no-bid contracts from Dominick and Morton School District 201. Urquhart's president, Dan Proft, a failed 2010 candidate for Illinois governor, also has deep ties to Illinois Policy Institute and its president John Tillman.
Again, if this is the same Eric Kohn, he failed to disclose any of this history in the thin bio he presented to the 18 suburban school boards in the Illinois Virtual Charter School proposal. (Illinois Virtual Charter School proposal, page 207)
Paid staffers for the Illinois Policy Institute have also been hard at work, writing articles touting the virtual school plan, publishing the articles in regional newspapers, and on conservative-leaning websites and not once has there been a mention of how organization officials stand to financially benefit by the plan's approval.
Is this is a deliberate attempt on the part of the Illinois Policy Institute to mislead school choice supporters and activists?
If approved, Virtual Learning Solutions will receive at least $8,000 in tax dollars per student with a projected 2,000 students or more within five years. K12 Inc. has an unusually high drop out rate but will keep the tax dollars even if students drop out and return to their local school districts.
$8,000 in tax dollars per student for a school that isn't bricks-and-mortar? For a school that performs worse than its public school counterparts? Where does the money go?
The 18 school districts in question have now unanimously rejected the virtual charter school plan proposed. Representatives from the school districts condemned the plan citing national criticism of a K12, Inc.'s failing academic track record, lawsuits, scandals involving grade-fixing, and questionable multi-million dollar executive payouts.
Virtual Learning Solutions is planning to appeal to the State Charter School Association which can bypass the decision of the school boards. The one-year moratorium on virtual charter schools would put a temporary halt to that plan.
Organizations like the Illinois Policy Institute and K12, Inc. have cloaked themselves in the language of "school choice." It's a great marketing strategy; education reform has become big business. Education reform is an emotional sore spot for conservative voters and concerned parents unhappy with their underperforming public schools.
But is a choice between a bad public school and a terrible "virtual" one really a choice? Or is it a tax grab marketed as "school choice" preying on parents and their kids? Shouldn't real school choice include "real choices" like giving parents vouchers for any school they want, including private, religious, or home-schooled alternatives?
There's an old saying: There's a right way to do things and a wrong way. Concerning the Illinois Virtual Schools Charter plan, Illinois Policy Institute officials deserve an "F" for ethics. Maybe K12, Inc. has an online class they can take.
On the other hand, given K12, Inc.'s poor academic record, that probably wouldn't help.
William J. Kelly is a conservative columnist for the Washington Times Communities and a contributor to the American Spectator. He heads-up an Emmy award-winning TV production house with offices in Chicago. He is a native of Chicago's South Side.