Online education programs for thousands of Wisconsin students could be in jeopardy after a court ordered the state on Dec. 5 to stop funding a virtual charter school, an advocacy group has warned.

The ruling could result in other districts having to close their own online charter schools and distance learning programs as well, the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families said.

The warning came hours after the District 2 Court of Appeals ruled the Wisconsin Virtual Academy was violating state law by allowing parents to assume the duties of state-licensed teachers.

The court said the school also has been violating a law requiring charter schools to be located in the district that operates them. It ordered the state Department of Public Instruction to stop shifting payments to the school from the home districts of open-enrollment students, who make up the majority of its more than 600 students.

Attorney Mike Dean, who represents students and families at the school, said the ruling “effectively shuts down the school” and puts many others at risk.

“It’s a huge deal for thousands of parents and students across the state,” he said. “If, in fact, children enrolled from outside the district are enrolled illegally, that will affect most, if not all, of the virtual schools in Wisconsin.”

Dean said he was considering an appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Supporters of virtual schools say they are more effective for some students and far less expensive than traditional public schools. Critics dispute that.

The Northern Ozaukee School District hired K12 Inc., a Virginia-based company that provides curriculum to schools, to create the Wisconsin Virtual Academy in 2003.

Students in kindergarten through eighth grade learn from their homes over the internet under the direction of their parents, who must devote at least four hours a day to their child’s education. Certified teachers who work for the district help monitor student progress.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teacher’s union, filed suit in 2004 claiming the school violates the open-enrollment, charter school, and teacher licensing laws. The Department of Public Instruction, although named as a defendant, switched sides and agreed the school was violating its licensing requirements.

A judge threw out the lawsuit last year. Months later, the district announced plans to expand its online offerings by creating a new statewide virtual high school.

But the appeals court on Dec. 5 reversed the judge’s decision, siding with the teacher’s union on all three claims.

Writing for the court, Judge Richard Brown said the school may be a “godsend for children who would not succeed in more traditional public schools, as well as a welcome new option for parents who want their children to receive a home-based education.

“But it is also a public school operated with state funds, and its operation violates the statutes as they now stand,” he wrote.

Brown said parents are teaching without the state license required of all public school teachers. Even though they are not paid or employed by a school district, they are acting as teachers under state law, he wrote.

“The problem is not that the unlicensed WIVA parents teach their children, but that they ‘teach in a public school,’” Brown wrote.

He also said Northern Ozaukee is violating a law that prohibits school districts from operating charter schools outside of their boundaries. The school’s administrative office is in the district, but the majority of its teachers and students are not, he wrote.

Northern Ozaukee also illegally received open-enrollment money for students even though they are not attending school in the district as required, he wrote. The money pays for the operation of the school, and the district keeps an “oversight fee.”

Lee Allinger, superintendent of the Appleton Area School District, said he was studying the ruling’s impact on its virtual school, the Wisconsin Connections Academy. The 390-pupil school also takes open-enrollment students from around the state, he said.

Links:

Wisconsin Virtual Academy

Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families

Northern Ozaukee School District

K12 Inc.

Wisconsin Education Association Council

Appleton Area School District

Wisconsin Connections Academy