The moratorium as protective tariff

The best thing one can say about Illinois’s new moratorium on virtual charter schools is that it could have been worse. The folks at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools talked lawmakers down from a three-year ban on any new charter with “virtual-schooling components” to a one-year moratorium on new online schools outside of Chicago. The bill the governor signed last week also demands policy recommendations from the state’s charter school commission that could lead to quality and cost-efficient online learning.

Virtual charter school
Did lawmakers want a moratorium to "better understand the effects" of virtual schooling, or was it a power grab?
Photo by wader

But did lawmakers want a moratorium to better understand the effects of virtual schooling, as some explained, or was this the result of a power grab by influential suburban school districts worried about the prospect of losing students to charters they never before had to fear?

The objection to a single virtual charter application from eighteen Chicagoland districts points to the latter. When a nonprofit group named Virtual Learning Solutions asked to open the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley, reactions from superintendents in Aurora, Geneva, and other districts ranged from “no” to “hell no” (the school would have been managed by K12 Inc.). Eventually, a Democratic representative from Aurora who chairs the House’s education committee proposed the idea of a three-year ban. 

This sort of development would be less worrisome if it were isolated to the Chicago suburbs. But it’s not. Statehouses in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Maine have also recently passed or proposed moratoria on virtual charters, ostensibly to better study their implications but more likely to assuage the concerns of school districts that see the potential loss of market share.

Districts and their allies in these states are happy to paint profit-making companies such as K12 and Connections Academy as rapacious villains. To be sure, there are concerns about quality control and high student turnover at K12 and Connections that lawmakers are right to flag. But issuing a moratorium to “better study” online learning is a cop-out; it doesn’t address those problems and it doesn’t help students who want such a learning option now. That’s like local bookstores banding together to block Amazon.com to “better evaluate and understand its impact” while customers are waiting at their computer.

Virtual charter schools are here to stay, and they’re only going to expand. About 275,000 students nationwide attended a full-time online school and another two million or so took at least one online course in the 2011–12 school year, according to the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). If legislatures are interested in maintaining these programs in the public interest, then the way to do that is by creating incentives that reward schools and course providers that can show high student achievement and punish those that fail.

But if legislators are only putting these schools on hold because districts fear further disruption, then they’re only using the moratorium as a tariff to protect the interests of traditional schools.

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