Court: Virtual charter school can receive public funds

A circuit court judge yesterday quashed an effort by the Chicago Teachers Union to prevent a virtual public charter school from receiving tax money.

In a 2006 lawsuit, the union argued that the Chicago Virtual Charter School is a home-based school and that it fails to supervise students as required by state law.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel A. Riley rejected both arguments. He wrote that although the school shares attributes of home schools, it is not a home-based school. Further, he said, because it is a charter school, it may define supervised instruction differently from state law.

"There are differences between the way we do education and traditional home schooling," says Bruce Law, head of the Chicago Virtual Charter School. "On that difference — that's where we were making our case."

Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says the difference was not enough to merit public funding. Since students of the virtual school spend most of their time learning at home, she says, they are essentially home-schooled.

"For someone to take public funds to home-school their children is not right," she says. "It should not be on the backs of a majority of our students who are in our public schools."

Judge Riley's analysis rested on a comparison of traditional home schools versus the virtual school. He wrote that parents, not teachers, drive instruction at traditional home schools. That is not the case at the virtual school, Riley wrote.

"While the form of home schools may vary, the underlying substance of the education is decided by a student’s parents," he wrote. "Unlike home-schooled students, CVCS students are graded by certified teachers."

Further, the virtual school is required to teach according to the Illinois State Board of Education's curriculum, and it must meet the state's requirements for the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It is also subject to fiscal oversight by the state board as well the Chicago Board of Education.

On the issue of supervision, Riley looked to state law as well as the virtual school's own charter.

First, he found that because it has a charter, the school is exempt from a provision in the Illinois School Code that defines days of attendance and outlines what is direct supervision.

Second, he pointed to the school's own standard for supervision — defined as five hours of schoolwork per day — and found that it fulfills that standard with a combination of on- and off-site instruction.

Law, the head of the virtual school, says students spend half a day of school per week at a brick-and-mortar learning center at 38 S. Peoria St. Each of the school's 532 students is assigned a day of the week to attend, he says.

For the rest of the week, Law says, each student must have an adult verify that he or she was doing schoolwork for the required hours.

Stewart says that kind of supervision is inadequate because teachers do not know who is signing off for their students. It could be any adult, she says.

Law says the school works with parents to make sure they are involved.

"We believe that the best education for children is one that involves a partnership between the children, the parents and the school," he says.

Law says the school received $2.8 million in per-pupil funding from Chicago Public Schools during its 2008 fiscal year. It also received more than half a million dollars in other funding that year, he says.

Stewart says the union is waiting for a legal opinion on whether to appeal.