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Commission recommends virtual charter ban extension

Updated: March 21, 2014 3:49PM

A state charter school commission has recommended that legislators extend a ban on new virtual schools up to two and a half years while new policies are developed and existing laws amended.

The recommendation comes after a months-long battle in Aurora, Naperville, Oswego, Elgin and other surrounding communities last year over the establishment of what would have been a virtual charter school that served 18 area districts. All 18 school boards voted down that proposal, which later was considered again on appeal.

The proposal died after state legislators passed a law last May sponsored by state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) that put a one-year ban on the establishment of new virtual charters in the state. That moratorium is set to expire April 1.

The law also required the Illinois Charter School Commission, the body tasked with approving or denying appeals on proposed charters, to submit a report to legislators by March 1 that included policy recommendations for handling virtual charters.

The report’s recommendations were approved Tuesday by commission members in an 8-1 vote.

The commission recommended that legislators pass a new law to extend the moratorium on virtual charters through Dec. 31, 2016, or until laws are changed — whichever comes first.

“Some may call this a moratorium to prevent virtual schools from opening but they’d be wrong,” Commission Chairman Greg Richmond said Wednesday in a news release. “The purpose is to get the right policies in place, however complex they may be.”

The report said that virtual schools are worth establishing because they “provide an opportunity for some children to receive a quality education that they may not otherwise receive,” but also acknowledged “the number of such students may be relatively small.”

“Significant modifications” to current charter school laws are needed, the report said, to better reflect the unique operations of virtual schools.

The commission recommended that school districts not be made to consider unsolicited applications for virtual schools, as was the case with the 18-district Fox Valley proposal.

Local districts or a group of districts could authorize a virtual school under the new laws through a competitive request-for-proposals process, the commission said, or the state charter school commission could authorize a statewide virtual charter.

But the “decision to approve or deny a virtual charter school proposal by the state or by a local district should not be subject to administrative appeal,” the commission continued.

Right now, the commission can overrule a district or group of districts that turns down a charter proposal — a power that some legislators and local group Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice have advocated removing.

If the state authorized a virtual charter, the commission recommended, it should be funded by the state. If a district authorized the virtual charter, the district would fund it.

The per pupil funding a virtual school receives should be based mostly on a student’s course or program completion, the commission said, not just enrollment. Funding should be decided during the application process, not based on a district’s per capita tuition, the commission added.

Funding streams and rates were a key sticking point for many of the 18 districts which voted down the Fox Valley virtual charter, fearing it would take away too much funding from brick-and-mortar schools.

Virtual schools must be held accountable on state tests, the commission said, and should be required to demonstrate their ability to serve English-language learners and special needs students.

The commission said new laws should allocate additional funding to collect data on virtual schools and should require an independent study of virtual school costs and performance seven years after new laws go into effect.

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