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Louisiana School Board Association

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Virtual School Not Virtual in Dollars - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hear the Echoes No. 46



Virtual School Not Virtual in Dollars



            The budget letter supporting the 2012-13 Louisiana Minimum Foundation Plan (MFP) is loaded with bad news for local school districts.  Amidst the avalanche of numbers presented are two that reveal K-12, Inc. and its LA Virtual Academy is budgeted for $4.777 million and Connections Academy for $2.15 million.


            A table reveals that this $6.8 million transfers from every district in the state.


            But, that’s not the end of the bad news brought via virtual charter schools.  Both K-12, Inc., and Connections claim significant waiting lists for new enrollees each of which will set back districts from which these enrollees originated by $8,145.


            A new report from the Washington, D.C. Center for Public Education presents findings on the growing national enrollment in virtual charter schools.


            Addressing the funding problem with virtual charter schools the report concludes "In general, how much funding virtual schools receive does not necessarily correspond to how much it actually costs to operate them. Clear data for the true costs is hard to come by. And to make it even more difficult, determining how many students are enrolled in virtual schools can be a problem as well. For example, in Colorado funds are distributed to virtual schools based on their enrollments on October 1st. However, between 30 and 50 percent of those students do not remain in the virtual school throughout the year, meaning the virtual school keeps the money even though the student has returned to the traditional school.”

"The bottom line is that in many cases we do not know how much it actually costs to provide a virtual education, nor how many students the money is funding, nor exactly how the money will be spent.”

            K-12, Inc., has reported a waiting list of 4,200 which would increase the flow of MFP funds from local districts by more than $34 million.

            The Washington researchers note that in moving forward "several things should be clear to school leaders and policy-makers.  "First, they should ask for more information before expanding access to virtual programs, especially full-time online schools.  The wide variety of purposes, providers and formats, combined with the lack of data on outcomes, accountability, and funding, means that we know little of what is going on overall in the field. 

            "Second, some of the outcomes studies have shown troubling results.  It is possible for students—especially struggling ones—to drop in and out of the online world, putting them ultimately farther behind.  Finally, follow the money.  Funding for online students should reflect the actual costs of providing the instruction.”

            ‘Emerging reports show a troubling overall picture of poor performance and low graduation rates for full-time online students. Two small-scale studies found positive effects for elementary students, suggesting that parental supervision could be an important factor,” the report observed.

            The LSBA BOARDMEMBER magazine summer issue of 2011 presented a thorough analysis in the article entitled "Virtual Online Schools Not Ready for Primetime”.  It reported that K-12, Inc., offered direct online enrollment for parents at about half as much as the MFP drains per student.

            Ghost students that enroll and do not fully participate in the program have been shown to be a problem in other states.  The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) has not, to date, provided an acceptable answer to how to track who is enrolled, who dropped out and when they discontinued?  Nor is it now known what happens to student who stop attending a virtual school?

            Selection of teachers, how they are assigned and how many students they oversee is in doubt, according to the Center report.  That report also questions determination of outcomes for virtual students.

            Claims, by profit-driven virtual charter operators, that the course work is aligned with Louisiana’s tough standards, and that the curriculum is consistent are questionable as the infrastructure to track student log ins and participation, and verification that the student is truly logging in is dubious, at best.

            What happens to the funding flow when a virtual charter that has been collecting from the MFP loses a student back to a local public school? 

            The LDOE, dedicated as it is to Gov. Jindal’s choice at any cost program, appears to have devoted little effort to generating verifiable answers to these questions.  Local school leaders are ill-prepared to deal with the fiscal realities until good answers are derived.


Don Whittinghill

LSBA Editorial Consultant