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Local officials seek answers on online charter school

Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, April 4, 2013 12:27 p.m. CST
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(Photo illustration by H. Rick Bamman – hbamman@shawmedia.com)
Virtual learning companies are being considered in several Kane County school districts. Those districts, as well as statewide government watchdogs and education associations, worry that a proposed online charter school will divert precious tax dollars from public schools to a for-profit, out-of-state company with a shaky track record of managing similar schools in more than 20 states.

Mary Stith said she is an advocate for online education.

But the Geneva School District 304 Board member is among many local school officials with questions about a proposed online charter school.

Formed in February, the nonprofit Illinois Virtual Learning Solutions wants to open the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley. It is seeking approval from 18 school districts in Kane, DeKalb, DuPage, Kendall and Will counties to enroll their students.

Local districts’ funds – estimated at up to $8,000 a student – would be siphoned off for each pupil who leaves his or her brick-and-mortar school to attend the virtual school.

Those districts, statewide government watchdogs and education associations fear the proposed online school would divert precious tax dollars from public schools to a for-profit, out-of-state company with a shaky track record of managing similar schools in more than 20 states.

While Illinois Virtual Learning Solutions would govern the charter school, it has said day-to-day administrative and curriculum responsibilities would be handled by K12 Inc.

The Virginia company is under investigation by the Florida Department of Education. The National Collegiate Athletic Association will no longer accept certain credits offered by K12. And, in Tennessee, students enrolled in K12’s online program scored the lowest in the state’s assessment system.

Officials for K12 and Virtual Learning Solutions did not respond to numerous requests for comment regarding various criticisms.

And they also didn’t satisfactorily answer many questions at the public hearings those 18 districts held last month on the proposal. Stith’s couldn’t be answered because the online school’s representatives were absent from the Geneva hearing. They later said no one had told them there was a hearing.

District officials said for a company purporting to do all of its teaching online, its officials should have been looking at the district’s website for information.

Stith went to three other public hearings after K12 did not attend Geneva’s.

“The biggest problem is, they don’t provide answers,” Stith said.

The numerous unanswered questions are one reason the Illinois Education Association, which advocates for nearly 133,000 public education employees, is contacting teachers throughout the area to warn them about the charter school.

“The people in schools today are there because they care about the kids,” IEA spokesman Charlie McBarron said. “If you are a for-profit enterprise, your focus is profit and what’s good for the shareholders.”

K12’s performance

K12 Inc. was founded in 2000 by former banker Ronald J. Packard and promises an engaging, individualized education for students whose needs are not met by traditional education models.

Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 have said all teachers for the Fox Valley charter would be credentialed and live in Illinois, and that students would spend at least six hours a day on coursework and have a learning coach who keeps track of attendance and progress.

But national media and academic researchers have routinely scrutinized K12 Inc. as putting shareholders first while producing subpar student achievement and high attrition rates using taxpayer dollars.

K12 had revenues of $708.4 million in its 2012 fiscal year, and expenses of $679.4 million, according to the company’s annual report and filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The previous year, revenue was at $522.4 million and expenses at $498.2 million.

K12 students have not performed as well as other students – a 2012 study from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that only 27.7 percent of K12’s schools made adequately yearly progress in 2010-11, versus 52 percent of public schools.

AYP measures whether schools are meeting state education standards.

The metric has been criticized for its unreliability, but K12 Inc.’s inferior academic results warrants further attention rather than excuses, NEPC researchers noted in their study.

The Chicago Virtual Charter School – started in 2008 with students from Chicago Public Schools – is part of the 73 percent of K12 Inc.’s schools that did not meet AYP.

The state’s meet-and-exceed average has been 81 and 82 percent from 2010 to 2012, respectively.

In that time, the Chicago virtual charter had 71 percent, 77 percent and 79 percent of students meet or exceed state standards, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card.

McBarron, the IEA spokesman, said a number of students have left K12’s 36 online charter schools after only a couple of years. In its own 2013 academic report, K12 reported more than half of parents with a child in a K12-managed school planned to keep their child there for fewer than two years.

The Florida Department of Education is investigating K12 for reportedly using uncertified teachers and falsifying records to show teachers had taught students when they had not. A draft of that investigation has been sent to K12 and Seminole County Schools for review and response by April 11, according to spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

As of July 2012, the NCAA no longer accepts Aventa Learning credits, a K12 online unit, spokesman Chris Radford said in an email. K12 is in an “extended evaluation” to determine whether those courses meet “the academic requirements for NCAA cleared status,” according to Radford’s email.

And, in Tennessee, K12’s students tested in the bottom 11 percent of that state’s students and scored 1 out of 5 in annual growth assessments.

Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education commissioner, said scores for students who attended the Tennessee Virtual Academy, K12’s online charter, “were the lowest in the state” in the company’s first academic year.

“It’s not specifically that we think virtual schools are bad, but it is a reflection of how these schools are performing – at a low level,” Gauthier said.

Gauthier said the Tennessee Legislature could impose restrictions on the virtual school, possibly requiring it to achieve a certain threshold of student growth before being allowed to increase enrollment.

“At the end of day, our kids have to be learning more every year,” Gauthier said.

Potential loss of state funding

Beyond the concerns about academics and accountability, the potential loss of significant state funding is distressing, officials say.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Illinois Education Association argue that the combined millions the 18 local school districts could lose would not be better spent by the proposed charter school.

CTBA Executive Director Ralph Martire said charter schools have proven incapable of providing a better education than public schools increasingly constrained by shrinking resources.

Illinois lawmakers consistently have underfunded the state’s foundation level, set at $6,119 per student since 2010 – resulting in nearly $1 billion in funding cuts to public schools.

“Charter schools take money out of the public school system that is woefully underfunded to fund alternative schools that don’t have a proven track record of academic success,” Martire said.

The 18 school districts are set to vote on the proposal this month; Virtual Learning Solutions has said it plans to appeal denials to the Illinois Charter School Commission as applicable.

It seems likely that some local districts will not approve it. Kaneland District 302 Superintendent Jeff Schuler did not think the virtual charter school stood much of a chance of acceptance.

“My guess – based on the number of hearings that have taken place and what I’ve read – they have not been very responsive in addressing the questions asked,” Schuler said.

At Batavia District 101’s hearing, board president Ron Link lamented, “We’re being asked to make a decision on something we haven’t got any data on,” when representatives could not answer questions.

Geneva’s board is set to vote on the proposal Monday.

“Our board has not decided, and I want to give these people every opportunity and show me data that this is a good choice,” Stith said. “Show us you are going to give us a great product. Give us student data and a success rate. Why would we defer taxpayer money to an organization that does not produce results? For me, it’s about having a good choice.”

• Shaw Media Projects Editor Kate Schott contributed to this report.

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