eSN Special Feature: States grapple with virtual school legislation

Recent developments in state courts and legislatures across the nation have produced mixed results for virtual education. Proponents of virtual schools—in which students receive instruction entirely online—contend the programs open new doors for students, but skeptics say they siphon tax dollars away from public schools and into the hands of for-profit companies.

At least 14 states have a state-sanctioned, state-level virtual school either planned or in place, according to “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues,” a 2001 report commissioned by the Distance Learning Resource Network. The states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia. In states that haven’t developed a statewide online learning program, however, the debate over virtual schooling continues.

In Texas, legislators struck down a House bill in April that would have approved the implementation of virtual charter schools in that state. Under the bill, every student enrolled in a charter cyber school would have been entitled to an internet-connected computer and a printer, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The narrow 75-66 defeat came as a surprise to bill sponsor and Public Education Committee Chair Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who had expected widespread support of the legislation.

“It was a surprise that [the legislation] failed, mostly because problems with it were never expressed,” said Grusendorf aide Byron Schlomach.

Schlomach said the bill was proposed as a means to increase the options available to parents, many of whom had expressed concerns that their children were stymied by traditional classroom settings. Schlomach attributed the bill’s failure to its “broad scope,” but at least one detractor said he was more concerned with the possibility that for-profit companies would be allowed to siphon money out of the state’s already anemic education budget.

“The reality is we ought not to be in the business of supporting for-profit education,” said Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs. “Any program that takes money out of our public schools would be against our better judgment.”

Still, House legislators will get another crack at cyber education soon. The state Senate has approved a companion bill that calls for a pilot program with enrollment limited to 2,000 students. The bill would require two universities to establish the program and assume general oversight, but the legislation would allow the universities to hire private companies to provide day-to-day management.

Georgia lawmakers also are wrestling with the issue of cyber education. In April, the state Senate voted 45-2 to establish virtual charter schools. However, the legislation was tabled in a House committee and had yet to reach the floor by press time.

Jared Thomas, an aide for bill sponsor Sen. Thomas Price, R-SS-56, said the legislation would provide additional choices for parents whose children have been slow to achieve in the classroom.

“The bill targets more non-traditional students, while making sure they still have access to the public school system,” he said. “[Sen. Price] believes in giving parents more options for their children, not less.”

Thomas could not say why the bill was tabled in the House.

Despite the indecisiveness of some state legislatures, proponents of virtual schools say they are pleased with the overall progress of the movement to date.

“Part of the reality is that this is a very difficult budget year for states to be dealing with any type of legislation,” said Barbara Dreyer, president of Connections Academy, a for-profit manager of virtual schools across the country.

Just because a piece of legislation fails the first time doesn’t mean similar bills won’t be proposed in the future, Dreyer said. Where virtual schools are concerned, it’s promising to note that lawmakers are at least considering the possibility.

“Not everyone is going to get it right away,” she said. “We want to see responsible growth, and we think that’s why some legislatures are taking their time.”

Recent victories

Dreyer’s company has enjoyed recent victories in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—victories she hopes will enable proponents of the virtual school movement to turn doubters around.

In Pennsylvania—a pioneer of the virtual charter school movement—lawmakers recently agreed to the first cyber charter school since a revision to the state’s charter school law empowered officials to approve or reject cyber school charters on a more stringent basis than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

The Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA) plans to enroll about 400 students from across the state in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program, which is aligned with state standards, will include a combination of computer-based instruction and individualized guidance from certified teachers, tailored to individual students’ needs.

The Harrisburg-based school was among five proposed cyber schools whose applications initially were rejected by the state Education Department in January because organizers failed to demonstrate sufficient community support, among other reasons, AP reported.

Department officials granted the school a three-year charter that expires June 30, 2006, and can be renewed for five years after that. CCA had to revise its application twice before it was approved.

According to AP, eight online schools currently operate in Pennsylvania, but one of them—the Einstein Academy Charter School—was ordered to close in June unless it successfully appealed the revocation of its charter.

The state’s new cyber-school law was passed last year in response to complaints that existing charter school laws did not adequately address the circumstances presented by online schools, which draw students from various districts across the state—forcing the districts in which the students live to pay the tuition cost.

In another milestone for Connections Academy—and for virtual schooling in general—a Wisconsin judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state’s teachers union questioning the legality of Wisconsin Connections Academy, a 300-student virtual school chartered by the Appleton School District.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council complained that the company would reap huge profits from state money granted for per-pupil expenditures. These expenditures were calculated to include many services not provided under the virtual model, the council said, including funds for teacher’s aides, janitors, nurses, school psychologists, and extra-curricular activities. (See “Teachers’ union challenges legality of Wisconsin cyber school,”

Dreyer stands firm against critics who say the company and its academies are only in it for the money. “This idea that we are turning some huge profit is really humorous to us,” she said, pointing out it would be extremely difficult for districts to provide these online alternatives on their own.

Depending on the size of the school, the investment can range from the millions to tens of millions of dollars, she said. That’s a hard sell for most states, especially considering the recent budget crunch.

Virtual schooling myths

Dryer’s assertions were supported by participants at a May 29 forum on virtual schooling in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Contrary to popular belief, online education does not cost less than traditional schooling, according to virtual school leaders who spoke at the forum.

“Lawmakers in a lot of states think this can be done on the cheap,” said Charles Zogby, senior vice president of education and policy for K12 Inc., which runs virtual schools in seven states. Before joining K12, Zogby served as Pennsylvania’s education commissioner.

“We operate at a cost 20 to 35 percent lower than a traditional school, but we have costs that traditional schools do not have,” Zogby said of K12. For example, to complete the state assessment in Pennsylvania, he said, K12 had to rent 40 sites and hire staff to oversee the exam.

Zogby also cited a KPMG study of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools that found there is a correlation between cost and quality of education.

This fact is echoed in the “Colorado Online Education Programs Study,” released May 12 by the Colorado Department of Education.

“Reports from online programs across the country, as well as those within Colorado, consistently indicate that the cost per student of a high-quality online learning program is the same as or greater than the per-student cost of physical school education,” said the study, which examined virtual school programs nationwide.

Typically, 85 percent of education budgets are spent on staffing, so the savings that come from eliminating school buildings is miniscule and often is less than the cost of developing eLearning curriculum, the study said.

Here are other facts about virtual schools that often are misunderstood, according to forum participants:

Not all virtual schools are the same. Some virtual schools offer a high school diploma, while others merely supplement traditional classrooms. Some assume that students are home-based, while others expect students to be part of a physical school.

Not all education is done online. In the early grades of a K12-run virtual school, 20 percent of the work is done online and the other 80 percent is done offline, supervised by an adult. The curriculum even includes field trips. “Kids in this model are very socialized. Again, it’s a mix of online and offline,” Zogby said.

Students do not need to be advanced computer users. “For a large chunk of our families and kids, this is the first time they’ve had internet access and a computer in the home,” Zogby said.

Virtual education is not easier. Julie Young, chief executive of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS)—one of the nation’s first statewide, state-run virtual schools—said school guidance counselors have called FLVS to see if a student could complete a course like American history over spring break, but in fact courses are much longer and more involved than what can be accomplished in a week.

See these related links:

Distance Learning Resource Network

Connections Academy

“Colorado Online Education Programs Study”

K12 Inc.

Florida Virtual School

eSchool News Staff

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