Monday, October 18, 2021

Big IL districts skeptical about online charter proposal


The school boards of several Illinois districts in the Fox Valley heard separate proposals for an online charter school Monday evening, a school whose curriculum would be managed by the Virginia-based for-profit education company K12 Inc, and the boards didn’t exactly greet the proposal with open arms.

At a hearing Monday in Elgin Area School District U-46, Illinois’s largest district outside Chicago, representatives of the Elgin Teachers Association, Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, and League of Women Voters of Illinois all urged the board to reject the charter proposal, the Daily Herald reported.

One U-46 board member even suggested that Illinois’s charter school laws, here, don’t allow home-based charter schools. Indeed, there is an explicit statement in the law that charters must be “non-home-based,” but it’s not clear that the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley would be “home-based” under the legal definition of that term.

Teachers would be teaching classes from their homes and students would likely be in their homes when they take the lessons online, but whether those facts make the school itself “home-based” is not clear. We’re in new territory here.

Although some comments emerged at the U-46 hearing in favor of the online charter, they were in the minority. These arguments focused on the opportunities for competition with U-46 public schools that a multi-district, online charter school would possibly create. That competition might drive improvement in the public schools, the argument goes.

A few recent studies, conducted by business schools, suggest that competition from nearby private schools can cause public schools to operate more efficiently. Studies like this, however, rarely deal with improvements in the quality of education provided for students.

But many learners—and many people—do not respond well to competition, especially if they shut down as a result of repeatedly failing to meet expectations. For these students or school communities, charters may cause a decline in the efficiency at the school or in the quality of education delivered by the public schools.

In Naperville, people say children need contact

At the meeting in front of the Naperville Community Unit School District 203 board, positive comments dealt with the idea that education by computer, rather than a face-to-face teacher, is the wave of the future. Again, those expressing positive views were in the minority, and opinions against the online charter by teachers questioned the core of the online learning mode.

“While there is a place for computer-assisted education in the classroom, approval of an online charter school should not be rushed through,” the Daily Herald quoted one woman as saying. “Largely online learning eliminates socialization, developing collaboration and teamwork and self-definition.”

Carol Higgins, a special-education teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, said children need contact: “The human element of Naperville schools cannot be replaced with an online program. Every child needs to have someone, in the morning, say, ‘Hey! Good morning. How are you doing?’ You can’t get that in some online program.”

This is the message I have been professing since I started this website. Technology has a great role to play in schools, but it can’t replace a teacher. Teachers should use technology effectively to deliver their lessons or to provide assistance for students with special needs. That’s the role of technology.

I know from experience that seventh graders, for instance, model their behavior, including their learning behavior, after people who care about them. And how do they know who cares about them? I actually asked this question in one class of seventh graders by passing out index cards and having them write their answers.

The most popular answers were, “When they smile,” and “When they say ‘hi’.” This is what Ms Higgins talked about Monday night in Naperville. Is anybody listening, or are people just talking to make noise?

This idea of “learning” in adolescents, teens, and elementary students is completely lost on today’s school reformers. They have this idea that all they have to do is design this great app or develop a graphic online course, with lots of bells and whistles that highlight facts they believe to be true about the given subject. But in going straight to the goal, they neglect the process of learning. They call this “personalized” instruction.

Except it’s not really personalized instruction. In fact, in most cases, “educators” developed the content long before they even knew the identity of the students who would be getting that instruction. This is definitely more “efficient” than working with each kid as he or she comes to you as a teacher, but it’s not the product of some artificially intelligent server that designs lessons after it meets students, as a teacher does; it’s just a certain path on a flowchart based on students’ responses to test questions.

Where this proposal goes from here

There are a few possible paths forward for the charter school. The charters could be approved by one or more of 18 districts in which they are being proposed. But even if districts deny the charter, the Illinois State Charter School Commission, an independent, appointed body within the Illinois State Board of Education, could overturn those denials and create the charter on its own. This commission has a higher authority than school boards, but boards can appeal the commission’s decision in court.

In the end, this is still a charter school. If approved, it will get $8,000 from districts wherein its enrolled students live. St Charles District 303 estimates it will cost the 18 districts about $600,000 in the first year if the enrollment at the charter school is what the charter’s proposal estimates it will be.

As public school money goes, that’s small change. And although questions remain about whether the money would be refunded to the district if the student didn’t make it at the charter and had to return to the public schools, it’s not really the money that has boards, superintendents, and teachers worried.

“I’m not an opponent of charter schools. They can be effective,” the Daily Herald quoted District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann as saying. Pointing to lawsuits and other problems at schools in other states run by K12, he continued, “The question for me is whether K12 is the right vehicle to deliver that education.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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