A Wisconsin school district’s plans to start an online public school this fall are being challenged in court by the state’s teachers union.

The Wisconsin Connections Academy is a kindergarten through eighth grade virtual school that plans to educate about 300 children from their homes across the state under a charter granted by the Appleton School District.

But the state’s teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), has filed notice that it is challenging the legality of the Connections Academy. The notice is a necessary legal step before filing a lawsuit, which could come later this year.

The school plans to use teachers hired by Appleton and curriculum provided by a private company, Sylvan Ventures.

WEAC officials argue private companies and school districts could make major profits by supplying online education for much less than the state aid amount set for students who transfer under the public school open enrollment law.

“We are concerned that the Wisconsin statues do not permit this kind of school and enrollment that is being contemplated by the Appleton School District,” said Lucy Brown, WECA’s legal counsel.

At press time, 262 of Appleton’s virtual school students would come from outside of the district and 22 students would come from within the district. WECA is concerned that the district could reap a huge profit by pocketing extra money built into the state’s per-pupil funding for services such as teacher aides, school psychologists, janitors, nurses, and extra-curricular activities—all services unnecessary for an online school.

“State monies should not be used to fund things that are not there,” Brown said.

The district would receive about $5,000 in state aid for each student in the program, said Linda Dawson, an Appleton assistant superintendent. About $2,000 will go toward paying the principal and six teachers, and about $3,000 will go to Wisconsin Connections Academy and Sylvan.

“No one’s making a lot of money at this point,” Dawson said.

Online schools are eligible for public money just like regular schools as long as they are run by a school district. The state’s open enrollment law lets students attend any public school district in the state if there’s space.

Virtual schools in other states—most notably Pennsylvania—have faced similar challenges. Last year, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association challenged the legality of that state’s seven cyber charter schools in court, arguing the schools were educating mostly homeschooled children at the expense of local school districts.

The court dismissed the case, but handed the state’s school districts a partial victory by saying districts should have the opportunity to question tuition bills sent to them by cyber charter schools.

In June, Pennsylvania passed a law to partially reimburse the state’s school systems for per-pupil funding lost when students enroll in alternative schools. The law also transferred authority for the establishment, evaluation, and renewal of cyber charter schools from local school districts to the state education department, thereby tightening accountability for the online schools.

In February, the North Carolina Board of Education skirted a controversial proposal for New Connections Academy, an online school also developed by Sylvan Ventures. North Carolina law only permits 100 charter schools to operate at a time, so the board avoided controversy by approving other charter schools until it reached the state limit.

WEAC’s Brown said Wisconsin legislators need to step in and implement controls over cyber schools like Pennsylvania lawmakers did.

“If there isn’t a community interest, where a lot of local kids go to the school, then the district might just be interested in making money, and we want to make sure that doesn’t become a problem,” Brown said.

Bill Thomas, director of educational technology for the Southern Regional Education Board and an expert on virtual schooling, agrees that states need to revise their charter school legislation to address cyber charter schools more clearly. When it comes to cyber charter schools, there is still the question of deciding “how much money is enough,” he said.

But Thomas said there are several ways for school districts to justify the additional costs associated with operating a fully online school. If done correctly, online instruction is actually more labor-intensive than traditional instruction and requires a smaller ratio of students to teachers, as well as a significant investment in technology and course development.

WEAC’s claim that private companies and school districts could make huge profits by supplying online education “comes across as a very weak argument,” he said.

A second proposed virtual school in Wisconsin is encountering problems of its own.

A company called K12—led by former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett—plans to continue its efforts to start the Wisconsin Virtual Academy this fall, but spokesman Bryan Flood said time is running out.

The Virginia-based company encountered an obstacle when Wisconsin’s Lake Mills School District decided against providing the school a charter, Flood said. The company then tried to reach an agreement with the McFarland School District, also in Wisconsin, but ran out of time for the coming year, he said.

Full operations remain a goal for the 2003-04 school year, Flood said. The 300 Wisconsin students who already signed up for the coming school year will be offered K12’s home schooling curriculum at a discount.

Links:

Wisconsin Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.org/wi

Wisconsin Education Association Council
http://www.weac.org

Sylvan Ventures
http://www.sylvanventures.com

Pennsylvania School Boards Association
http://www.psba.org

Southern Regional Education Board
http://www.sreb.org

Wisconsin Virtual Academy
http://www.wivcs.org

K12
http://www.wivcs.org