Thursday, December 16, 2010

Virtual Charter Could Have Major Impact

A new virtual charter school approved this month by BESE has the potential to have a huge impact on public education in Louisiana! (click here to view the Advocate article) The Connections Academy virtual charter school will be based in Baton Rouge and will provide on-line instruction to students who are accepted from throughout the state. This new charter school will not have physical classrooms and will have little direct contact with students but will receive 90% of state and local per pupil funding according to the plan approved by BESE. Proponents claim that most of the per pupil funding is needed to pay for the high cost of technology instead of providing physical classrooms. Students will be expected to communicate with the school mostly by computer and by telephone. Its not clear from the packet provided to BESE what the pupil-teacher ratio will be, but the Connections Academy web site claims that teachers are required to conference with each student at least once every two weeks. This could be very minimal contact indeed! The material provided to BESE states that the Connections Academy will target a population of “high needs” students and has a plan for providing services to such students as well as for students with disabilities and to gifted students.

The service provider for this new charter is a national group that claims to service schools in 22 states. Click on this link to access the information on their web site. A similar virtual charter was also approved for the New Orleans area and is expected to serve 1100 students.

The Baton Rouge Connections Academy plans to start with 500 K-12 students beginning with the 2011-2012 school year and increase to 1750 students by the fifth year. Even though the president of the board for the type 2 charter school stated that such a school could be especially helpful to students who may be in danger of dropping out from a traditional school, there is no way to tell at this early date what type of students will be attracted and actually enrolled.

My best guess is that the school may attract a significant number of students away from private and parochial schools. Parents who had fled what they considered to be undesirable public schools may jump at the chance to save thousands of dollars in tuition by transferring their child back to a publicly funded virtual school. Also, many parents who have attempted home schooling may wish to utilize the services of this virtual school because they may feel that it takes some of the financial and time commitment burdens off of the parent to provide instruction to their child. According to the Connections website however, parents are still expected to serve as “learning coaches” directing the daily activities of their child in the virtual school. Finally, some public school parents whose children have been assigned to low performing public schools may find the virtual school to be a way to escape what they may believe to be an undesirable school environment. The virtual school may even attract students from low performing charter schools. This type of school could be a real competitor for all schools, public and private, where parents want to save money and keep their child in a controlled home environment.

It is not clear from the information provided in the BESE packet whether the Baton Rouge based virtual charter school will be a “for profit” or “non-profit” or if the school itself will be non-profit while the national service provider will be allowed to pocket a profit from the operation. This is a very critical question since once you add the profit motive, it can compete with the best interests of the customers (children). I hope to get an answer to this from the State Dept. Charter School office and post it to the blog in the near future.

As the new BESE approved school rating system goes into effect and parents begin receiving letter grades of “D” and “F” for their child's school, the virtual charter school may become even more attractive, especially if the student selection process for the virtual charter results in a more highly motivated student body. As we have explained in other posts of this blog, the most important factor in producing a high performing school is the practice of enrolling high performing students! If this first school succeeds, we can look for many imitators and for a major expansion of the Connections Academy.

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