Legislators should support one-year moratorium on Illinois virtual charter schools

The Illinois Senate will soon be voting on HB 494, which, if it passes, would place a one-year moratorium on online charter schools to study their impact. Some parents may have been informed that the bill is nothing but an attack on “21st century learning.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

On a personal note, both of my parents were educators. My father was principal of Abbott Elementary on Chicago’s South Side for many years. He would have been as excited as I am about the future of education and the online technologies that will help students in non-traditional ways.

However, my enthusiasm for the future of education comes with a number of important caveats and questions about the Illinois Charter School Commission, the virtual charter school concept itself, and how the millions of taxpayer dollars at stake may be used or misused.

These caveats and questions are the reason why HB 494 was quickly introduced in response to the Illinois Virtual Charter School plan (IVCS), which would cover 18 suburban school districts. They are also the reason why legislators should pass HB494 and its one-year moratorium on online schools.

First, Virtual Learning Solutions, the non-profit entity governing IVCS, is requesting $8,000 in taxpayer dollars per student from the local school districts.  Why such high dollar amounts when these schools aren’t even brick-and-mortar and don’t have the overhead? Isn’t the point to save tax dollars?

In school districts around the country, K12, Inc., the for-profit partner involved in the charter plan, has offered the same curriculum for a fraction of the cost. But the 18 districts are wealthier school districts so VLS is able to ask for more under the statute.

Many have also questioned K12, Inc., its track record of multi-million dollar executive payouts, scandals, and lawsuits, and the millions of dollars spent on lobbying.

Secondly, K12, Inc. has a record of poor test performance and high drop-out rate among its attending students. If a student drops out of the virtual charter and returns to public school, the virtual charter keeps the $8,000. Shouldn’t the funds be prorated back to the school district?

Third, if local school boards vote to reject a proposed charter school, the Illinois State Charter School Commission can overturn the decision. There is also a concern about kick-backs.

According to the ISBE website, “The State Charter School Commission is currently unfunded but may charge a school that it authorizes an administrative fee, not to exceed three percent of the revenue provided to the school.”

That’s 3% of $8,000 per student X 18 school districts per year.

This scheme creates a financial incentive for the Commission to approve bad charters, even “virtual” ones. Lawmakers must end this pay-to-play incentive before it begins. This is a game the insiders are playing.

The 18 school districts in question have all unanimously rejected the IVCS plan but the charter plans to appeal. Consequently, the impact of HB 494 will be immediate. Legislators should support the one-year moratorium on Illinois virtual charter schools for these reasons and more.

For the record, I am passionate about school choice but I support it for all schools. Parents should be able to choose any school, public or private, tax vouchers in tow. That’s the way we reward great schools and the teachers that make them great.

But that’s not the system we have in Illinois.

Real choice should not be a choice between a struggling public school and even worse “virtual” ones. That’s a bad lesson neither the kids nor the taxpayers should have to learn.

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