Another school year, another series of controversies involving virtual schools: In Oregon, a virtual charter school that serves hundreds of students is in danger of losing its state funding, while in Wyoming, following a note of alarm sounded by State Superintendent Jim McBride over statewide mailings encouraging parents to enroll their children in a “Wyoming Virtual School,” the Campbell County school board has decided not to open up its planned virtual school to students outside the county.
The controversies are just the latest in a complex area of education that continues to grow–challenging policy makers and educators along the way. (Editor’s note: For more stories about virtual schools and the challenges they pose for policy makers, see the following link: Educator’s Resource Center: Online Learning.)
Last week, the Oregon Department of Education said the Scio, Ore.-based Oregon Connections Academy, which is run by the for-profit Connections Academy of Baltimore, has violated state law by requiring parents to serve as learning coaches as a condition of student enrollment.
The department also said the school, which uses the internet, mail, and telephones to deliver lessons, must use a lottery rather than a policy of admitting students on a first-come, first-served basis.
Until both issues are addressed, state money will be held in an escrow account, the state education department said in a letter to Gary Tempel, superintendent of Scio School District, which chartered the academy.
Charter schools are public schools that operate semi-independently under a charter or contract with a school district or the State Board of Education.
The year-old school, which has about 1,200 to 1,500 students this year in kindergarten through 10th grade and has a 50-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio because it teaches lessons online, receives about $5,000 per student–or $6 million a year–in state support. The next of its 10 payments from the state is due Sept. 15.
Jim Thomas, Connections Academy principal, told local newspaper The Oregonian that he has asked the state for 60 days’ time to work out changes that will bring the school into compliance.
In reviewing the school’s application for a federal grant this spring, state officials noted that the academy was making parent involvement a criterion for admission, asking parents to sign a contract agreeing to act as learning coaches.
The state attorney general’s office has said a charter school can use only age or grade level as a condition for enrollment.
The school can fix the problem by strongly recommending, but not requiring, parents to participate, said Randy Harnisch, a policy advisor to state schools superintendent Susan Castillo.
The school can resolve the other violation by abandoning the practice of admitting students on a first-come, first-served basis and using a lottery instead. It has used that policy because the virtual school has not reached its capacity of about 2,000 students, said Thomas, the principal.
State Rep. Linda Flores, R-Clackamas, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she was disappointed by the education department’s “heavy-handed tactics” in withholding funds from the school. She said the state should not have waited until the first week of school to notify the academy of possible violations.
Harnisch said the department has no interest in attacking or closing the academy and wants to help it stay open.
In Wyoming, the Campbell County School District is still planning to go ahead with its K-6 pilot virtual school, though it no longer will accept students from outside the county. It will be offered through Conestoga Elementary School in Gillette, Wyo., and overseen by a long-time teacher in the district.
“We already had enough kids from our district express interest, so we are moving forward. We might not get to the 100 that we wanted, but we will have a school,” Assistant Superintendent Ed Weber said.
Earlier this summer, parents around Wyoming received mailers saying they should enroll their children in the Wyoming Virtual School and give them “the excellent education they deserve.”
State Superintendent McBride, who thinks Wyoming should be more deliberative in its approach to virtual schools, wrote Gillette Superintendent Richard Strahorn with his concerns Aug. 24; the school board voted Aug. 30 to limit enrollment to within the district.
District officials are planning to meet with the state Legislature’s Joint Education Committee later this month to discuss possible legislation governing virtual schools in Wyoming. The state Department of Education, meanwhile, has prepared draft regulations for the state Board of Education to consider, according to Mary Kay Hill, the department’s director of administration.
“There [are] all kinds of issues” to consider, Hill said. “There are issues regarding certification of teachers, connection to the state standards, how attendance is counted, assessment issues.”
Weber said about 23 students had signed up for the Gillette virtual school as of early this month, but a few would be rejected because they lived outside the county. He expected computers and curriculum materials to arrive at students’ homes soon.
Prospective students have been taking placement tests.
“The teacher will be conferencing with the parent, deciding are they going to take third-grade math or fourth grade-math? That sort of thing. Those decisions will be made, and then the materials will be sent to parents,” Weber said.
The Virginia-based company K12 Inc. is providing the virtual school’s curriculum. More than 20,000 students nationwide use the K12 curriculum in public virtual schools, while another 5,000 or so home-schooled and other students use the curriculum, according to company spokesman Jeff Kwitowski.
While the Campbell County School District has set aside $700,000 in local funding for the pilot virtual school this year, district officials hope to secure state funding to keep the school running after that.
“We need funding,” Weber said. “Now, the funding will be different than regular funding because we don’t have to pay for transportation. We don’t have to heat a big building, we don’t have to hire custodians, these sorts of thing. So the funding will be different, but there will still be a cost.”