Virtual Schools Scrutinized

One thing you can say about the education establishment: anything new will be scrutinized. Charter schools are captive to local school districts, tutoring services are under fire, and now, virtual schools are under the microscope. Some of the scrutiny appears to be warrented, but we fear that an over-reaction will scuttle this valuable option in the education system.

The Kansas City Star, Lawrence Journal-World, The Hutchinson News, the Wichita Eagle and doubtless other newspapers are running or will run stories about a report from the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit. The report is titled “Reviewing Issues Related to Virtual Schools,” and it’s available as a PDF file.

Here’s a sampling of the press accounts.

The Eagle (“Audit: State has ‘virtually no oversight’ of online schools”)

A report from legislative auditors said the Department of Education lost track of which schools were registered with it, couldn’t locate 60 percent of the registration forms in its files and didn’t have its staff conduct all of the required visits to districts sponsoring virtual schools.

The audit also said students in virtual schools scored lower on standardized math tests than students in traditional schools.

Dale Dennis, interim education commissioner, didn’t challenge the audit’s findings and told legislators, “We’ll put more staff behind this to follow up.

From the Hutchinson News (“Oversight of online schools pushed”)

The state Legislative Division of Post Audit found that over the past three years, the Mullinville school system had “given” 130 students of its virtually enrolled students to nearby districts.

The move allowed the Comanche County, Haviland and Pawnee Heights districts to receive state funding for those students, even though they attended online-based classes through Mullinville.

Under state law, the students should have counted toward Mullinville’s enrollment totals and boosted its level of state funding. However, the report indicated that the arrangement didn’t appear to financially benefit the Mullinville district or its superintendent, John Paul Jones.

[The problem, then, lies with a traditional school district. Yet as sure as the sun rises in the east, defenders of the education establishment will use this report as a cudgel with which to beat the idea of a student being able to use a virtual school that is not run by his incumbent school district.]

As one of the smallest districts in the state, with 150 full-time equivalent students, auditors noted that it would be difficult for Mullinville to survive without its virtual school. Nearly 60 percent of the school’s enrollment comes from students attending via the Internet, according to the report.

[Sounds like we’re back to the old chestnut that the system is more important than the student. One way around this scheme is to give money out to parents, in the form of a voucher or refundable tax credit. They endorse a two-party check over to the school district. No parental signature, no money.]

State law only allows students to be counted in two ways: In the district where they attend school or, in special circumstances, in the district where they live even if they don’t attend school there.

[Attach the school funding to the child, and you achive the objective of giving funding only to the school that the child attends.]

Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican, said she asked for the audit because Internet-based schools and curriculum were growing and would get bigger in future years. She said lawmakers needed to study this phenomenon and determine the best practices.

[Some thought on the subject is good. Making a one-size-fits-none appoach the standard is not.]

From the Star (“Oversight lacking in Kansas for virtual schools”):

“There’s virtually no oversight,” said Sen. Nick Jordan, a Shawnee Republican.

[While financial guidelines might need reviewing, this comment forgets that parents are providing oversight. Are their children studying? More importantly, are they learning?]

Auditors found that required reports were missing, that the data on filed reports were inconsistent and that the state had not conducted many of the required on-site visits.

Some districts could be illegally manipulating virtual school enrollment to attract more state dollars, the audit said.

[An organization cooking the books? It’s easy to blast companies for “Enron Accounting.” Perhaps this report is a good reminder that government entitites are not immune from that practice.]

The principal of the state’s first virtual school was shocked to learn that schools weren’t following the guidelines she helped develop in 2004.

“That’s why we established those rules,” said Brenda DeGroot, principal of the Basehor-Linwood Virtual School. “We wouldn’t want anybody cranking up a virtual school just to get state funding. We want quality programs with accountability.”

[Some measure of reporting is fine. But let’s not forget that if these new forms of schools don’t satisfy parents, they won’t get students.]

Auditors identified 14 risks associated with virtual schools. Some addressed academic integrity: Do the students do the work themselves? Are teachers available for questions? Others addressed funding: Do the students live in Kansas?

[The same questions could be asked of brick-and-mortar schools. In some parts of the country, school districts actually send employees out into the community to verify that enrolled students actually reside at their stated residence.]

State law limits funding for virtual school students to only those living in Kansas. But because the Kansas Department of Education doesn’t collect addresses, the number of students from neighboring states cannot be known.

[That sounds like a problem.]

About one-fifth of the 2,000 virtual school students are adults who dropped out and have returned to finish their education. Auditors said the 20 adult learners whose records they reviewed had spotty attendance records, raising questions about counting them as full-time students and receiving full-time student funding.

[Apparently, one fifth of those students–400 in all–didn’t have a great experience with traditional brick-and-mortar schools. That’s a waste of taxpayer money, of course. It poses the question of why schools aren’t working for everyone.]

The schools vary widely in practice. Olathe, for example, limits enrollment to students living in the district. And most of the students at its eAcademy are adding an eighth hour to their schedule rather than attending online classes full time.

[A variety of practices can be a good thing. Students have different needs, and they are not all the same. Isn’t that one of the criticisms of No Child Left Behind?]




From the Journal-World (“Report: Virtual schools lack solid oversight”)

Because students don’t have to be physically present to attend a virtual school, this form of education creates the risk of abuse in the form of manipulating student performance and state funding, the report by the Legislative Division of Post Audit warned.

[Actually, you might argue that the problem arises because the money is sent directly to schools. Make the state aid money a two-party check that the parent must sign as well as someone in a district, and you have another person verifying enrollment.]

“I think we have some problems,” said state Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, a member of the Legislative Post-Audit Committee, which recommended more study.

[We love babies, which is why we hope that this will not be an occasion for throwing them out with the bathwater.]

Kansas has 28 virtual schools with a total enrollment of about 2,000 students, up from 60 students from the 1998-99 school year, when the first virtual school was formed. The number of virtual students represents less than half a percent of the state’s 440,000 students, but that number is growing.

[Did we mention babies? Virtual schools are yet toddlers. Why aren’t regular schools getting more scrutiny, given that one quarter to one third of high school students aren’t performing at grade level?]

One parent commented in the public forum on the LJW web site. Here’s an excerpt that captures some of the benefit of virtual schools:

There is a lot of communication and one on one interaction with his teachers, far more than when he attended regular public high school. He is very motivated, has learned how to do sound engineering, is on a record label in Japan, and tours with his band. … [The school] fills a need for students that have other opportunities in their lives that don’t fit the 9-3 school day

Another parent adds:

The parents, are REQUIRED to have a phone conference weekly or bi-weekly with your child’s virtual teacher to assess any problems or ask any questions. (can’t remember if it was weekly or bi weekly though)

If your student takes the chapter test and gets below 80%, the student has to re-read the chapter and look over their work and then retake the test until they get it right and see where they are making their mistakes. (What a fabulous way to ensure they really do know the work instead of flunking them and moving on to the next chapter where so often the understanding of the previous chapter is extremely important!)

Sounds to me like LVS is doing it right! Thank you LVS for being here!!

Refer to:

  • The Hutchinson News, “Oversight of online schools pushed,” April 25.
  • Kansas City Star, “Oversight lacking in Kansas for virtual schools,” April 25
  • Lawrence Journal World, “Report: Virtual schools lack solid oversight” April 25
  • Wichita Eagle, “Audit: State has ‘virtually no oversight’ of online schools,” April 26
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