Bill would permit virtual charter schools in state

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A for-profit Virginia company has hired lobbyists to push for a virtual public school in Mississippi.
K12 – the nation’s largest operator of full-time online schools – wants lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 2294, the “Mississippi Digital Learning Now Act,” which would enable a virtual charter school like K12 to operate in Mississippi.
The push for new charter schools, online and otherwise, is taking place across the nation, even as communities and states are coming up millions short in funding public schools.
Mississippi lawmakers could begin debating charter schools as early as this week.
Proponents of virtual charter schools say they enable students to work at their own pace and take courses unavailable otherwise. “The ability to deliver an option for students, regardless of where live, is empowering,” said Jeff Kwitowski, spokesman for K12.
Critics of virtual charter schools see problems.
Studies so far suggest virtual charter schools fall below average. A Stanford University study of Pennsylvania charter schools found that virtual charter schools performed lower than brick and mortar schools in every subgroup.
Only 27 percent of these schools are meeting Adequate Yearly Progress compared to 52 percent of the nation’s public schools as a whole, said Gary Miron, education professor and researcher at Western Michigan University. As for K12 specifically, only 33 percent of its schools met AYP in the 2010-11 school year, he said.
Kwitowski described AYP – a requirement under the Bush’s administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative – as “a crude measure and an unreliable one,” saying there is a move toward measuring students’ academic growth instead.
Miron agreed AYP is a crude measure that should be interpreted carefully, but “when you have only 33 percent of K12 Inc. schools meeting AYP compared to 52 percent of all public schools in the country, this is a very large difference.
“When you look at the demographics of the students served by K12 Inc., these are not high poverty students, and very, very few are classified as special education or English language learners. Given their demographics, I am even more surprised that so few of their schools meet adequate yearly progress.”
Kwitowski said the scores for students who have remained in the program for two or three years are much higher.
K12 puts its student-teacher ratio at 49 to 1. In a Dec. 12 article, The New York Times quoted a teacher as saying the ratio can run as high as 100 to 1.
The Times questioned the school testing scores touted to investors by K12 CEO Ronald J. Packard, who made $5 million last year.
K12 officials criticized the Times story, calling it “unfair and one-sided.”
Kwitowski said K12 works with 2,000 school districts across the nation, including some in Mississippi. One advantage that online learning can offer is enabling students to take advanced courses the district may not offer, he said.
K12 fills other gaps, too, he said. “For students who are struggling, they often have no other option.”
The company is working with a Chicago program, where those who dropped out of high school can make up classes they lack and get a diploma, he said. “There is more flexibility, and counselors and advisers to help.”
K12 offers online learning for those as young as 5, he said. Students that young must be supervised by parents or coaches, he said.
Asked about situations where students have little or no supervision, he replied that online learning “is not for every student. It’s not for the majority of students.”
Jason Dean, education policy adviser for former Gov. Haley Barbour, said he supports all charter schools, including virtual charter schools.
Documentaries such as Waiting for Superman have depicted charter schools as saviors for the poor, he said. “Parents and students are excited about school. That’s almost worth it.”
But he believes the real value of such schools is offering innovation to students that excel. For instance, if people in Madison wanted to create a charter school for math and science, “why should they be legally denied that opportunity?” he asked.
Borrowing from economics, he sees charter schools as healthy competition for public schools. For instance, if a public school sees its funding cut in half, school officials will do a better job, he said.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said without accountability, virtual charter schools can drain money from “school districts, communities and even the state, and they’ll be sent out of state.”
North Carolina, where he worked as a superintendent, had a state-approved virtual charter school. He said he still remembers getting a bill from the virtual charter school for a student he didn’t even know existed.
Asked about a virtual school taking funds away from local schools, state Sen. Michael Watson, who introduced the virtual charter legislation, said, “I’m more concerned with making sure we have educational options to meet the needs of all students than I am with taking money from traditional public schools. If they aren’t getting the job done, why should we continue pouring money into a system that obviously doesn’t work for all of our children?”
Parents should have this alternative available, “with virtual schools being one,” he said.
Watson, R-Pascagoula, said the type of virtual school he wants to see would require course completion before anything is paid.
Nancy Loome, executive director for The Parents’ Campaign, believes charter schools with a proven track records can help improve student achievement, especially among low performing students, but she opposes virtual charter schools because of a lack of accountability.
“Because schoolwork is done online, virtual teachers have no idea whether students are doing the work or whether parents or tutors are actually completing the exercises to inflate grades,” she said.
In addition, “it is impossible to verify average daily attendance – the measure that drives funding to schools,” she said. “The virtual charter simply sends a bill, and the state or local school district has to fork over the state and local funding for the number of students the virtual claims to have enrolled.”
She compared it to “turning on a funding spigot and allowing out-of-state, for-profit businesses to rake in hordes of state funding – all while diminishing student achievement.”
Last year, funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was 89 percent – or $255 million short. This year, funding for MAEP is expected to be 86 percent – or $323 million short.
Gov. Phil Bryant has said districts can make up the difference between this year and last through their $72 million in reserves.
Education officials have responded that much of that $72 million is not extra money but is used to make payroll and other expenses throughout the year.
Burnham said three-fourths of those reserves can be found in about a fourth of the districts, mostly in the state’s wealthier areas.
Eleven districts have no reserves at all, he said. Instead, they’re borrowing to make ends meet.
Reserves are long gone in areas such as the Delta, he said. “When you tax nothing, you end up with nothing. Those are the districts that suffer. They don’t have the resources.”
He said the state already has an online high school, which has provided courses for 3,500 students over the past two years. The online school is run by a private company, saving the state about $1.8 million, he said.
“There is certainly a place for virtual education,” he said, “but it needs to be done with structure and fairly significant accountability so we know where the dollars are going.”

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