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Districts face tough questions with virtual charter schools

DeKALB – Doug Moeller believes DeKalb School District 428 is looking at a roughly $480,000 question.

Moeller, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and student services, said the multidistrict virtual charter school would take about 60 students from DeKalb if its charter is approved.

That loss would mean about $480,000 less in state funding for District 428, but it would be a hit the district would take if it meant a better opportunity for those particular students, Moeller said.

“As a district, we feel we meet the needs of all our students,” Moeller said. “But there are some students, for whatever reason, that might find this a better way to learn.”

Formed in February, the nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions is petitioning to open the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley.

It wants to enroll students from 18 school districts including District 428, Sycamore School District 427 and districts in DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will counties. School board members in each district must approve or deny the charter request within 30 days after holding a public hearing.

The District 428 school board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its April 16 meeting, while District 427 will vote on it Tuesday.

The organization has said it plans to appeal denials to the Illinois Charter School Commission, which could override school board decisions.

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

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

Less local leadership

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

The Virginia for-profit company is under investigation by the Florida Department of Education. The NCAA 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 requests for comment, and local districts said company representatives provided few answers at public hearings on the proposal.

However, late this week, Virtual Learning Solutions provided a nearly 1,100 page packet to superintendents of those 18 districts that purported to provide answers.

But it’s the numerous concerns and questions about the proposal and K12 that have the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, contacting area members.

“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.”

New education model

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

Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 have said all teachers in the proposed Fox Valley school would be credentialed and live in Illinois. Students would spend at least six hours a day on coursework and have a learning coach to track their attendance and progress.

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

K12’s revenues outpaced expenses by almost $30 million in its 2012 fiscal year, with $708.4 million in revenue and $679.4 million in expenses, according to the K12 annual report and filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Revenue was $522.4 million and expenses were at $498.2 million in the 2011 fiscal year records show.

K12 students have not performed as well. 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 under the federal No Child Left Behind rules in 2010-11, compared with 52 percent of public schools.

No Child Left Behind’s measure of school performance has been criticized for unreliability, but K12 Inc.’s inferior academic results warrant further attention rather than excuses, NEPC researchers said in their study.

The Chicago Virtual Charter School – started in 2008 for students from Chicago Public Schools – is part of the 73 percent of K12 Inc’s schools which did not make adequate progress.

The state’s meet-and-exceed average has been 81 and 82 percent from 2010 to 2012, respectively. In that time, the Chicago virtual school 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 many 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 Thursday, according to spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

In 2012, the NCAA stopped accepting Aventa Learning credits, a K12 online unit, spokesman Chris Radford said in an email. K12 is an in “extended evaluation” to determine if 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 Tennessee’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.

Gauthier said the 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.

Funding shift

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 superior education than public schools increasingly constrained by shrinking resources.

Lawmakers consistently have underfunded the state’s foundation level, set at $6,119 a 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.

District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman said although the money is a concern, there also are questions surrounding the student experience.

She said experiences such as sports and extracurricular activities through the district would be unavailable, classes such as chemistry would not have the same hands-on laboratory work and the mixture of virtual and traditional learning would be unbalanced.

“We need to as a district really look at the needs of our students and how we can meet our mission to empower them,” Countryman said. “We know virtual learning will need to be part of that, but how we don’t exactly know how that should look.”

• Shaw Media Projects Editor Kate Schott and Daily Chronicle reporter Jeff Engelhardt contributed to this report.

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