Virtual Schools Questioned

It had to happen sooner or later: an innovation in education starts gaining ground, and then the questions arise. Some of these are captured in the Kansas City Star:

“When the virtual school bell rings Aug. 16, leaders of iQ Academy Kansas hope high school students from Garden City to Overland Park will be logging in for class.

Leaders of the academy, which is an expansion of the virtual school operated by the Manhattan-Ogden School District, have scheduled more than two dozen open houses around Kansas this month to recruit students for the online high school.

More Kansas schools are offering students the anytime, anyplace convenience of taking classes on the Internet. Six new virtual schools are expected to open this fall, bringing the state’s total to 34.

Comment: to see a list of some of those schools, please visit the virtual school page on Kansas Education. You can also find some information at the web site of the KSDE.

But the virtual schools also are being watched more closely by lawmakers in the wake of a spring audit that criticized the Kansas Department of Education’s oversight of the programs and questioned how they were funded.

Comment: Earlier press coverage on the report, plus a link to the report, is available on Kansas Education.

The state doesn’t have a prototypical virtual school. Some serve just high school students, others offer classes for kindergarten through high school. Some target home-schooled students, others students at risk of dropping out. Some restrict their enrollment to students within the school district boundaries, others recruit across the state.

Comment: This is similar to the case with charter schools. There is no “one” charter school. In general, our method of running schools should recognize the different needs of students.

The note about recruiting reminds us of some news stories that ran in the fall a couple of years ago. The Lawrence Virtual School was conducting outreach meetings in various cities of the state. Some school officials elsewhere objected.

Lawrence’s two virtual schools had a combined enrollment of 643 students last year, about 44 percent of whom lived more than 30 miles from the school.

Like the Manhattan school, the Lawrence school recruits students at open houses, though principal Gary Lewis said word of mouth has been the best recruiting tool.

He said there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for more virtual schools, though he cautioned that the state needs to make sure that the schools are providing quality education.

Comment: There is some role for state oversight, but the best check on the quality of schools is an informed population, particularly that segment which has children of school age. The state of Kansas has produced several products that let parents look at the performance and budget of school districts. Such products should be made widely available and improved continually.

“The key is to make sure they’re focused on kids, not on being a profitable business,” he said.

Comment: In the long run, a profitable business is one that satisfies the needs and wants of its customers. If children are free to enter and leave schools, and the fiscal and academic performance of those schools is known, quality will take care of itself. There need not be a conflict between someone making money and students learning. After all, traditional teachers and district employees, as well as those who produce textbooks and other materials used by schools, earn their living by teaching. So Besides, in Kansas, virtual schools are all overseen by school districts, not businesses.

Rep. Pat Colloton, the Leawood Republican who asked for the state audit, said she’s particularly concerned about funding. The audit found that schools receive the state’s full per-pupil funding for full-time students, though the per-student cost to operate the virtual schools in many cases may be less.

“That opens the question of whether schools are trying to make money off the virtual school,” Colloton said. “One of my questions is how the formula should be set up to reflect the actual costs of operating a virtual school.”

Comment: The costs of running a virtual school may be less. They may be the nearly the same, but different. It all depends on the schools in question.

Until this year, the Manhattan-Ogden virtual school targeted at-risk students, said Brooke Blanck, the academy’s program director. The district wanted to add average and more advanced students to the virtual mix, she said, and began researching programs that offered a more rigorous curriculum.

The district contracted with iQ Academy, a Portland, Ore.-based company. This fall, iQ Academy is entering its fourth year of a virtual partnership with a Wisconsin school district.

Lisa McClure, director of iQ Academy, said full-time students who enroll in the Kansas academy will receive a laptop computer and photo-quality inkjet printer at no charge, as well as a small stipend to offset the cost of Internet access.

There’s no tuition for the school. Funding comes through the state’s school-funding formula for public schools, which in 2007-08 is $4,374 per student. McClure said a portion of the funding will stay with the district to cover its virtual school costs and the rest will go to iQ Academy.

About two dozen people attended an open house for the academy on Wednesday in Overland Park.

Peggy Collison of Shawnee, a home schooling parent, said she is considering enrolling her daughter part time in the iQ Academy to pick up a couple of classes not available elsewhere and to see whether virtual learning is a good fit.

She liked the secure online environment the school provides. And enrolling full time to get the free laptop loaded with software is an enticement.

“It would be easier with the laptop,” she said.

Comment: Virtual schools aren’t for everyone, but they can be useful for some. Let’s not try to force them into the mold of traditional bricks-and-mortar schools, or use fear that “somebody’s going to make a profit” from benefiting students.

Source: As new virtual schools open in Kansas, questions remain, Kansas City Star, July 22)

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