State lawmakers to put online charter schools on standby

SPRINGFIELD – As local school boards rejected this week a request from a proposed online charter school that would draw students from its schools, state lawmakers appear poised to slap a hold on the creation of virtual schools until regulations and guidelines to govern them can be crafted.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, introduced legislation Thursday to place a one-year moratorium on web-based virtual charter schools.

Earlier this week, Chapa LaVia had called for a three-year moratorium. But she said that time span was "arbitrary" and she was open to reducing the length of time the ban would remain in place.

"This is the first time Illinois has ever seen anything like this," Chapa LaVia said. "And I'm not willing to risk something that would be detrimental to our children and our schools."

Chapa LaVia's legislation has passed a state House committee, and is headed to the full chamber for a possible vote.

The legislation arose in response to a proposal from Illinois Virtual Learning Solutions to open the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley.

The online school was proposed to include students from 18 school districts in Kane, DeKalb, DuPage, Kendall, McHenry and Will counties, and would be funded by local district funds, estimated at up to $8,000 per student.

While the nonprofit Illinois Virtual Learning Solutions would govern the virtual school, it has said actual operations for the school would be handled by Virginia-based, for-profit company K12 Inc.

The virtual school concept is in place in other states, including Tennessee and Florida. But officials in those two states have raised questions over the virtual charter school operations, noting participating students' low test scores, among other issues.

In Illinois, education officials have also cited concerns over a lack of provisions in the state's charter schools law that could be applied to such virtual charter schools.

At least 10 of the 18 school boards in the proposed charter school's area — including Kaneland District 302, St. Charles District 303, Geneva District 304 and Batavia District 101 – have rejected the virtual school proposal. The remaining districts are set to vote on it next week.

Virtual Learning Solutions could appeal those decisions to a state board.

Lawmakers have sought to slow the process down.

State Reps. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley, and Kay Hatcher, R-Yorkville, have signed on as co-sponsors to Chapa LaVia's legislation, after Chapa LaVia reduced the moratorium to one year and agreed to exempt online learning programs in place in Chicago and other Illinois public schools.

The state lawmakers said they believed time was needed to commission a task force to draft guidelines and suggested legislation to specifically address online charter schools.

"There really aren't standards for an all-virtual school," Pritchard said.

Hatcher said allowing online education was intended to give public schools greater access to quality instruction, such as foreign language instruction for rural districts or better science teachers for inner city schools.

"This moratorium is the right thing to do, because the charter school statute was conceived in a different time, before there was any idea, really, of what virtual learning could become," Hatcher said. "Nobody's against online schooling.

"This will just give us the time we need to gather data that could affirm it one way or the other."

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