Kelly Responds to Illinois Policy Institute on Virtual Charter School Attack

I recently wrote a column calling out Illinois Policy Institute officials for being dishonest about their interests – financial and otherwise – in the Illinois Virtual Charter School plan. More than $16 million in tax dollars are at stake.

Apparently, the piece is being tweeted out by the Illinois Principals Association and school district superintendents. So angry Illinois Policy Institute representatives contacted the website’s editors and demanded that the story be taken down immediately. It is important to see what organizations like the Illinois Policy Institute do behind-the-scenes.  This is a copy of one of the threatening and disparaging emails sent.

The problem with saying something isn’t true is that you have to prove it is false. Illinois Policy Institute can’t magically waive its wand and make facts it doesn’t like go away. As President Ronald Reagan once said, “facts are stupid things.” That’s why the article stands as is – without any correction. It is also why the Illinois Policy Institute must explain itself. And “no, that’s not true” is not good enough when the hard facts suggest otherwise.

So let’s go through Illinois Policy Institute’s grievances one-by-one:

First, they say its officials don’t have a financial interest in this multi-million dollar virtual school plan. But Virtual Learning Solutions, the entity that will govern the Illinois Virtual Charter School, lists Ted Dabrowski, Illinois Policy Institute’s Vice President of Policy as its secretary and Eric Kohn, whose wife is the institute’s Senior Manager of External Relations, as its treasurer. So what is their real interest here?

Illinois Policy Institute says that its officials will not manage the virtual charter school. But Virtual Learning Solutions is named as the organization that will govern the charter school entity for 18 school districts. So what does that mean? Will Illinois Policy Institute officials control jobs? Vendor contracts? The millions in Illinois tax dollars the virtual charter will receive? Who will be salaried? Are we really supposed to believe they get nothing out of this?

Second, they dispute the $8,000 per student figure – that’s in Illinois tax dollars from local school districts. They say “the amount of money that the virtual academic program will receive per student will be determined by the Illinois Charter Commission and that amount has yet to be determined.” That’s just double talk. The $8,000 is the amount per student that Virtual Learning Solutions has requested as part of its proposal. VLS projects a few thousand students by year five if the virtual charter is approved. So $16 million in state tax dollars is right on target.

Most puzzling of all, a representative for Illinois Policy Institute says that Eric Kohn, treasurer of Virtual Learning Solutions, “never had any contracts with Cicero President Larry Dominick” and that he “never served as the personal spokesperson for Jeff Pesek.”

But Eric Kohn was Operations Manager for Dan Proft’s Urquhart Media and benefitted from no-bid contracts from Cicero president Larry Dominick and Jeff Pesek. That’s a fact. He has been the spokesperson for Jeff Pesek and the Morton school district 201 for years – and was quoted in newspaper articles for Pesek as recently as the end of 2012. Kohn still works out Dan Proft’s offices for Urquhart Media in Chicago, where he operates other non-profit organizations, including the Chicago office of America’s Future Foundation and other groups. All of this information is in Kohn’s LinkedIn bio and in internet sources. Kohn submitted a much thinner bio – minus his Cicero connections – to the 18 school boards. (See Page 207).

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There is more in Kohn’s background that should raise red flags. Kohn is the treasurer of one Fiscal Accountability PAC – a PAC started by Illinois Policy Institute president John Tillman and is an a consultant with Merc Strategies, which received thousands of dollars in fees from Proft’s Liberty Principles PAC. Proft has long been partnered with the Illinois Policy Institute and is a paid consultant to Illinois Opportunity Project, which also donates to campaign for governor, his PACs, and candidates.

Did K12, Inc. even bother to vet Kohn and his background? K12, Inc. has enough problems with lawsuits and scandals – did they really need this connection to a corrupt Chicago suburb and its mob-connected figures?

And if there isn’t any problem, why be so dishonest about  all this? Isn’t Illinois Policy Institute supposed to be about honesty, integrity, and transparency? Or maybe its not.

All of this is an issue because Illinois Policy Institute and its sister organization, Illinois Opportunity Project, have been lobbying against HB 494, legislation that creates a one year moratorium on online schools. To use tax-exempt organizations to lobby against legislation that an organization’s staff has a vested interest in – that raises significant conflict-of-interest concerns. Yet, Illinois Policy Institute never mentions its vested interests in Illinois Virtual Charter School in any of the staff written articles, on news websites, or in email blasts to subscribers.

Illinois Policy Institute needs to finally come clean for the benefit of school choice advocates, for parents, and their children. I am sure they would welcome the change.

Dishonesty is never good public policy.

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