Chicago, Illinois, June 24, 2013 - I read with some interest "The Fight for Educational Choice Lives On" by Illinois Policy Institute's John Tillman on the Illinois Review. I, too, share the dream that is true educational choice.
My parents were both teachers; in fact, my father, William F. Kelly, who passed away in 2006, was principal of Abbott Elementary on Chicago's South Side and spent his decades on Earth filling young minds with wisdom. In addition to his subscriptions to Smithsonian and American Heritage Magazine, teaching was my dad's great passion and he did it well. He never tired of the written word and he consumed it voraciously. Consequently, education and educational choice has always meant a great deal to me.
For me, school isn't a place you go to; it is a perpetual state of being. My father took every spare minute to teach life's critical lessons and he relished the opportunity. I guess you could say I spent my entire childhood in the "principal's office."
That is why I take issue about what true educational choice is and what it is not.
In his piece, Tillman talks about the foes of educational choice: the unions. But unions aren't the only ones opposed to true school choice. In the end, school choice is just another fight over property tax dollars. And the unions aren't the only ones fighting for their slice of the taxpayer pie; there are wealthy private interests that are trying to get their grubby little hands on Illinois tax dollars too. Why do you think Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his donors are even involved?
I have been involved in the fight for taxpayer rights since the early 1990s; I learned from the best - Jim Tobin of Taxpayers United of America - the barracuda of taxpayer watchdogs in Illinois and one of the most ethical human beings I have ever met. Sadly, there aren't very many real Jim Tobins left.
I learned some important lessons from Tobin, including: Always look beneath the surface and never take an Illinois politician at his word. Of course, a politician isn't just a person holding or running for public office; a politician is anyone involved in the political process for advancement or gain.
That is why it is important to look beneath the surface of this school choice debate and ask the critical questions. The recent controversy over online charter schools and the failure of the effort is a case in point. We have one year before the moratorium on publicly-funded online charter schools is lifted and there is still time to protect taxpayers and their families.
The key issues remain unresolved:
First, the Illinois State Charter School commission is flawed. The commission should not receive a 3% kickback for every new charter school it approves. That is an incentive to approve disreputable charter schools - virtual or otherwise. It also smacks of special interests and pay-to-play politics. It is a system ripe for abuse.
Second, if one of the benefits of online charter schools is to save taxpayer dollars, then save them. K12, Inc., which was behind this recent 18 suburban school district virtual charter school play, asked for $8,000 in taxpayer dollars per student. Yet K12 has operated with far less per student in poorer school districts. Here, the school isn't "brick-and-mortar" and yet wanted $8,000 per student. Why?
In the first eight months of 2012, K12, Inc. spent $21.5 million in advertising appeals and has been criticized for the millions spent on lobbying and executive compensation. There's your answer.
Third, if students drop out of the virtual charter school, the school should be forced to give back a pro-rated amount of tax dollars back to the state. The charter school shouldn't keep the tax dollars as a windfall for its failure to retain students. And drop-out rates for K12, Inc.'s schools are high.
Fourth, any school board of any publicly-funded charter school or virtual charter school should be accountable to the parents and voters who send their children to that school.
And lastly, true school choice means that parents should be able to send their kids to any school of their choice - religious or otherwise - and receive a tax voucher to pay for it. Their choice should not be limited to a bad public school and an even worse taxpayer-funded virtual charter school. Anyone who says this is school choice is pulling our educational leg.
Online or digital learning is a critical tool for the future of education - one my father would have appreciated. But publicly-funded virtual charter schools are not a substitute for real school choice in education. I'm not fooled by all the slick marketing without the practice. That is another lesson the taxpayers and real school choice advocates really don't need to learn.