On April 8th of this year, the Kaneland school board (a district in a small town in Illinois) voted unanimously in favor to deny the online charter school application from Virtual Learning Solutions, the nonprofit corporation in charge of opening the school. The school was to be named Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley (ILVCS@FRV), and the application was extended to Kaneland and the 17 surrounding school districts. Subsequently, the remaining 17 districts voted to deny the application as well.
ILVCS@FRV was set to open this fall, and was to be a quality online charter school that is results-oriented, and uses cutting-edge technology to educate children.
From the actual ILVCS@FRV mission statement,
“The Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley will provide an individualized education plan for each of K-12 students… based upon proven best practices… Delivered online and offline, this unique program will put public school accountability, teacher competence, and meaningful parent involvement at the center of student learning… ILVCS@FRV is committed to data-driven instruction and decision making, responsive governance, across-the-board accountability, and transparency in all aspects of school operations.”
ILVCS@FRV targets at-risk children, children who’ve moved around a lot, students who need a different pace than regular public schools, children who are pursuing athletic or artistic careers, or children who are homebound due to illness or other issues. Basically, they offer an alternative to children who need one.
ILVCS@FRV would be funded by taxpayers, just as public schools are. There would be no tuition and no admission criteria. The charter would operate much like a regular public school, with standardized tests, a common core curriculum, and daily classes.
This all sounds great; kids and parents would have another school option, and pay no more than they already do. Why, then, did Kaneland and the other 17 districts deny the application?
Many times, charter schools are managed by for-profit companies, which provide them with educational goods and services. In this particular case, a company called K12 was contracted to manage ILVCS@FRV.
K12 is a for-profit “technology-based” education company out of Virginia that is one of the largest companies of its kind.
K12 sent a member of its team, John McMurray, to appear in front of the Kaneland school board on March 18th to give the proposal. McMurray explained to the board that the cost for the first year was $8,000 per student, and they estimated they would have approximately 500 enrollees in the first year ($4 million). This means that the local school district would be required by law to allocate $8,000 per student enrolled in the online charter to K12, which is a little less than it costs a regular public school, according to Steven Spurling, St. Charles school board president. St. Charles is one of the other 17 districts to receive the proposal as well.
Since this is an online school, it seems as though it should cost less per student than a regular “brick and mortar” public school. Where does the rest of the money go, you shall ask? Profit.
I am a proponent of profits; profit-seeking drives innovation, cutting-edge technologies, and high quality products, but not necessarily when the profits are coming from taxpayers who aren’t voluntarily giving their money.
Things could have turned out differently if K12 were actually the brilliant company that they wish to convey. McMurray came to the meeting unprepared, with little knowledge, and no answers; in fact, McMurray isn’t even from Illinois, and had little knowledge of the area or its laws. Kaneland board members asked tons of questions, and McMurray’s famous response was,
“I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
The board’s frustrations grew as their questions went unanswered. Board member, Joe Oberweis asked McMurray to clear up some of the media scandals that K12 was involved with; failing schools, fraud, etc. McMurray’s only response was that he knew nothing of the claims, and that, he would “get back to them on that”.
Kaneland Superintendent Jeff Schuler voiced his concerns that K12 wasn’t providing them with enough real information- statistics- and that McMurray’s answers sounded like unfounded predictions, instead of concrete information. Schuler couldn’t understand why a business would make a proposal without having definitive answers.
McMurray failed to name the graduation rate of K12 schools, even the school that he works at, in Pennsylvania. Oberweis asked him if he could state how many seniors they had at their school, and McMurray only shrugged. McMurray even said that K12 doesn’t collect an aggregate number tracking the graduation rate of their schools. Oberweis then demonstrated his disbelief by asking Schuler the same questions; questions which Schuler answered in seconds, without hesitation.
McMurray promised the board that all of their questions would be answered before the vote date, which was set to be 3 weeks later, on April 8th. Schuler submitted the board’s questions via email to K12, hoping to receive definitive answers. It wasn’t until the night of April 6th when K12 responded with a 1,100-page document that supposedly contained the answers in question.
On voting night, Schuler enlightened the board about the monstrous document sent by K12.
“I read over portions of the document, and it reminds me of the proposal, very unorganized. In essence, our questions have not been answered,” Said Schuler.
Besides the lack of professionalism on the part of K12, there are a number of articles in print that suggest K12 to be involved in fraudulent activities such as “grade tampering”, and “funding manipulation”; suggestions that McMurray promised he was unaware of. The legitimacy of these claims shall be left to consumers to decide.
The whole situation seemed a little funky, unprofessional and disorganized. It’s no wonder that every school district voted it down. Still, the question remains- why would K12 go through all the trouble of making proposals to 18 school districts, when they weren’t even prepared?
Virtual Learning Solutions, K12′s partner, has said that they intend to appeal to the Illinois Charter School Commission, which has the power to overturn the 18 districts’ votes.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and the only possible explanation for this is that K12 was just going through the hoops because they knew that the Charter Commission could, or would, overturn the districts’ decisions,” Oberweis said, “I don’t understand why a business would make such a half-witted attempt otherwise.”
“In my opinion, K12 didn’t anticipate that the 18 districts would embrace them with open arms, as shown in their lacking presentation. They were just going through the motions. The real story here, after all the districts decline their application…is the appeal process with the [Illinois Charter School Commission]… K12 spends a lot of money in lobbying, so who knows what is going on downstate…” said Cheryl Krauspe, Kaneland School Board President.
Illinois lawmakers have caught on to this situation, and State Representative Linda Chapa LaVia, a Democrat from Aurora, has introduced legislation that would place a moratorium for one year on all online, web-based charter schools.
“I wish that there was a better solution than the moratorium, but I’m hoping that it would allow some more time for study, and making changes,” said Oberweis.
The bill has passed in the Illinois House, and the legislation is now residing in the state Senate for consideration.
If the charter commission decides to overturn the districts’ decisions, and the moratorium does not pass, the school districts can decide to appeal to the state court.
All of the districts received the same treatment from K12. They were all given unimpressive proposals, and they all received the insulting 1,100-page “answers” document.
It also doesn’t seem like the districts are adamantly opposed to charter schools in general, but this particular situation just didn’t seem to jive.
“Charter Schools do have a place in our district, for special needs students for example. I do think that they have their uses in some districts. In this case, I just don’t think the company is right for us- we just weren’t impressed… I especially can’t justify sending over that much money to a company that I’m not impressed with, when every year we fight with a tight budget,” Spurling said.
The Geneva School Board (another neighboring district) also voted unanimously to deny the charter application.
“For us, as with many districts, it was mainly about not having enough measurable data that they could do what they said they could do, coupled with the fact that we would be turning over taxpayer money and not be able to say it was going for a better product. I think our board supports choice and online options, [we] just need to see more,” said Mary Stith, Geneva School Board member.
“I don’t really have a strong opinion about charter schools. I always support competition in the market place and especially competition to improve government services; I am a free-market economist at heart. I don’t think that [K12] is out for the interest of the kids, and I wanted to give them the opportunity to correct that. They didn’t. I’m wondering why a business needs to take public money… If it’s really as good as it says it is, why not just use private capital? My main problem with this situation was the funding mechanism; it needs to change,” said Oberweis.
Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 have 30 days from the last district vote to appeal to he charter commission. Time will tell what the results are, and the districts will have to go from there.