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Charter school opinions mixed at District 300 forum

Legislators whose districts are Community Unit School District 300 wait for their chance give an opinischool-related issues before General Assembly

Legislators whose districts are in Community Unit School District 300 wait for their chance to give an opinion on school-related issues before the General Assembly during the D300 Legislative Forum held the commons of Jacobs High School in Algonquin Tuesday | Suzanne Baker/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 24, 2014 1:12PM

If state legislators walked away with anything from the 2014 Legislative Forum hosted Tuesday night by Community School District 300, it was that charter schools should be analyzed carefully before they are approved.

Much of the evening was spent polling local lawmakers on the four legislative priorities District 300 adopted for the 2013-14 academic year: school funding, pension reform, funding of capital improvement projects, and virtual charter school legislation. On the hot seat were state Reps. Robert Pritchard, R-Sycamore; David McSweeney, R-Cary; and Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake; and state Sens. Dan Duffy, R-Barrington, and Michael Noland, D-Elgin.

Discussions related to funding schools, pensions and capital projects unsurprisingly fell along party lines, with the Republicans calling for budget cuts to pay for education and the lone Democrat calling for finding new sources of revenue. The same, however, was not true regarding charter school and virtual charters.

Virtual charter schools became an issue for District 300 last year when it and 17 other school districts voted down the proposed Fox Valley virtual charter, which billed itself as an alternative learning option for at-risk students. The plan was for the school to serve about 500 children in the first year and up to 2,000 by the fifth year.

The charter would get a percentage of what each local school district would normally spend on children who enrolled in the virtual school.

After much lobbying by the school districts, the state legislature placed a moratorium on all new virtual charter schools through March 2014 so the Illinois State Charter School Commission could study the idea and offer recommendations. The commission has yet to make any movement on that front.

Pritchard, who co-sponsored the moratorium, said charter schools should be left in hands of local school districts, as in the case with District 300’s Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove. He said charter schools should be held accountable to a school district.

While Noland supports extending the moratorium, he said school districts need to be aware of technology and the “new normal.”

McSweeney said he supports charter schools and the current system for approving charter schools. “We have a charter commission,” McSweeney said. “Let the system work.”

Duffy also said he supports charter schools, in general.

Tryon said virtual charter schools could open up more possibilities for children, but they would have to be regulated. “I am excited about what virtual charter means,” he said.

At the close of the meeting, school board member Kathleen Burley reiterated District 300’s concerns with charter schools. She urged the legislators to take a very close look at all aspects before signing off, particularly if the school is competing with a school district.

Burley said some of the biggest problems with charter schools is that they often are run for-profit and they lack quality teachers. Burley said charter schools should be held to the same standards as school districts that hire certified teachers.

Tuesday’s forum was moderated by District 300 Board Legislative Committee members Steve Fiorentino (school board) and Jill Bradley (community member). A number of high school students also participated, including Mary McNicholas and Riley Bernardi, who also serve on the Legislative Committee.

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