Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday March 28th, 2013, 11:32am

Valley View School Board Slams Proposal For Suburban Online Charter School

Valley View School Board members blasted the for-profit charter company K12 Inc. and its non-profit partner Virtual Learning Solutions at a hearing last night over plans to bring an online charter school to the Romeoville and Bolingbrook areas.

For nearly two hours, district officials grilled representatives from K12, a publicly held company that sells cyber schooling to states, on everything from its academic performance and accommodating students with disabilities to its lack of data showing student growth and success.

Virtual Learning Solutions and K12, which operates in at least 29 states outside of Illinois with two schools in Chicago, want to form the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley for Valley View and 17 other school districts, including Plainfield and Oswego. Last night was the last of 18 hearings on the charter proposal.

“My fear is there’s something being hidden from us,” said Valley View School Board member Leo Venegas. “It sounds like it’s this fabulous program, but no substance, and I just don’t know if I can bring that to my community and say, ‘There’s value here, but we have no proof of the value.’”

Virtual Learning Solutions is eyeing the 18 districts for a new charter school based on the current waitlist to get into existing charters in the area.

John Rico, vice president of Virtual Learning Solutions, said he believes by 2017, virtual schools and online learning will be part of the norm, and it’s already on the agenda for the state.

To take up this large-scale online learning initiative in suburban Chicago, the non-profit would need a partner, like K12, “who really kind of understood how to do this,” said Virtual Learning Solutions representative Mike Skarr.

K12 would be the vendor providing online curriculum for the virtual charter school, under the plan, which would serve about 1,000 students from all 18 districts.

Under the proposal, $8,000 per student that attends the public, online charter would be siphoned from the school district, which raises red flags for school board members.

“We’re going to give you $8,000,” said board member Rick Gougis. “How much of that is going to be spent on instructing a student, and how much of that is going to go to administrative costs?”

K12 executive Randall Greenway said he didn’t know the administrative cost per student, adding that he’d get back to Gougis later with the details. But a K12 regional finance director said the per-pupil public cost is a little more than $5,000, with about $2,000 in operating costs.

The Valley View district spends $77 per student on administrative costs, Gougis responded.

Greenway said K12's program, which has 110,000 students enrolled nationwide, has a 90 percent approval rating from its students' parents, and it’s been “highly successful.”

“It’s highly successful in enrolling, it’s not highly successful in graduating,” Gougis said. “In every state I’ve looked at, you’re graduation rate is less than half, so how do you define success, sir?”

Greenway responded that the students who typically come to K12 may be behind in various subjects, but its programs are able to move kids along and improve their academic performance over time.

School board members asked for specific academic performance numbers, and Greenway said he didn’t have the data with him, but he’d get them a copy of K12’s most recent academic report.

“You’ve done this 17 times,” Gougis said, adding that he thought K12 would be prepared for questions.

School board member Chrystal Hansen told K12 that it did a poor job of selling its program to parents.

“Personally, as a parent, if my kids were in school, I would not want to pass my child over to a 30 percent graduating statistic, when right in my own community, I have a greater statistic of that,” she said.

Gougis asked how, as a publicly held company, K12 reduces its costs and makes profit, which Greenway dodged.

“Just on the financial side, you’re asking us, and the taxpayers we represent, to make significant investment in your company, and your answers on all economic issues are, ‘I don’t know,’” Gougis said.

Greenway said taxpayers are investing in Virtual Learning Solutions’ proposed charter school, not the for-profit K12, to which audience members sighed and exclaimed, “Come on!”

“K12 is just a provider for that school,” Greenway explained. “K12 does not run this school. This is not a K12 school, it’s a K12-supported school.”

Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley has plans to open in August, but first, the 18 districts would all have to agree to issue the charter.

It’s likely the application will be denied, based on the concerns raised by Valley View and the other 17 schools boards. The charter groups have the option to appeal the decision to the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

“You come to a public hearing, before our community, before our board, and tell us that there’s all this great stuff happening within your organization, within your profit-company team, but nothing to back it up, with no proof,” Venegas said to Greenway.

If the proposal doesn’t meet the board’s expectations, then, “That’s your decision to vote ‘no’ on it,” Greenway responded.

John Laesch, spokesman for Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice, was one of about two-dozen community members at the meeting in opposition of the charter’s proposal.

To sell their online school to customers, Laesch said, the charter company runs advertising campaigns, often targeting people in minority communities, offering a free computer and Wi-Fi.

“Then they sign up these customers, it takes money out of the school district, [and] eventually the kid can’t perform, can’t pass the ISATs and standardized tests, and so he ends up back in the school district years behind,” he said. “The challenge then becomes back on the public in a public school system to repair the damage.”

At that point, he added, “The fellows from Wall Street have already got their money.”

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