Thursday, January 6, 2011

Virtual Schools Should be Considered

Virtual schools and computer assisted distance learning are here and growing and should be considered for adoption by local public Louisiana school systems. BESE has now approved the first virtual charter school that will be allowed to draw students and per pupil funding starting in the 2011-2012 school year from any Louisiana public school system. With recent advances in computer technology and assets such as video conferencing and other interactive applications this education option is sure to attract some students away from traditional schools. But these developments may not necessarily be bad news for our public school systems. The question is are public school leaders willing to utilize this new technology and the service companies that are offering virtual educational programs to enhance local public education?

It should be more efficient to provide public schooling using virtual schools. Virtual schools do not require student busing, there is no need for classrooms along with janitorial services and utilities and no need to provide food services.

BESE has set the per pupil funding for the first virtual charter schools at 90% of the state and local per pupil funding. Those parents who enroll their child in a virtual school are only too happy to forgo traditional classroom services in exchange for a free public education for their child in their own home. There is every reason to believe that with recent advances in technology, such schools can provide all state required content in a manner that is appropriate for many students. The delivery of education through this system can only improve in the coming years.

Follow-up report on Connections Academy
The type 2 charter school recently approved by BESE is a non-profit, however the Connections Academy company which will provide all services to the charter is a “for profit" company. (See our post dated 12/16/2010 ). My major concern here is that students receive good services for the public money spent and that the profit motive not take precedence over the welfare of children. I emailed several questions to the LA Dept. of Ed. to explore what I believe to be important factors in delivering quality education.  According to Erin Bendily, State Dept. administrator for charter schools, the application for Connections Academy indicates that they plan an approximate pupil-teacher ratio of 50:1 for elementary students and 35:1 for middle and high school students. Charter schools are exempted from state maximum pupil-teacher ratios. Student contact time with certified teachers may vary greatly depending on need. The theory here is that non-traditional charter schools are exempted from state requirements such as pupil-teacher ratios with the understanding that such students will still get a good education as measured by the accountability program. On the question of students to be recruited, Ms Bendily responded that the Connections Academy is expected to enroll a similar proportion of at risk students as the parishes from which its students are drawn as required by state law.

An additional issue is the requirement that every student attracted to this state authorized charter takes with him/her 90% of all state and local per pupil funding. This is a major hit to the budget of any local school system from which the student is transferred. Also that 90% per pupil funding is much more than the $5779 charged by Connections Academy to its students that enroll in the private school version of the Connections Academy. A remaining question is why is the cost so much more for the publicly funded students at Connections?

While taking into account the above concerns, I suggest that local school leaders investigate to see if virtual schools may be utilized to strengthen their local system and to build critical public support. I believe that local school board authorized charters for virtual schools are greatly preferable to state authorized charters because the ultimate oversight of such schools remains with locally elected representatives. As we have seen, the rules approved by BESE for state approved charters (type 2 charters) and Recovery District schools make it very difficult for local school systems to reclaim these schools or their students. The key for local school leaders is to take the initiative to offer such schools in a way that enhances their public school system. A local school system may effectively use a virtual school to attract students who may now be in home schooling or enrolled in private or parochial schools. Every student attracted back or prevented from leaving the public schools ensures greater voter support for our public schools.

Virtual schools will certainly not be appropriate for all students. Chances are that only a relatively small but significant percentage of students will have the self discipline, the motivation and the parental support necessary to be successful in a virtual school. Virtual schools require a major time commitment on the part of the parent or home coach. I seriously doubt that students who are now struggling with high stakes testing and who are in danger of dropping out of the traditional school will be able to succeed any better in a virtual school. There will always be a need for a traditional classroom for the majority of our public school students. But some parents will want the virtual school option. Such parents may want better control over the peers their children associate with, and they may feel rightly or wrongly that the public school where their child has been assigned will not have the safe, positive environment they want for their child. Just consider the erosion of middle class enrollment, both white and minority (now called class flight) from our inner city schools. The virtual school could counteract this trend. This may finally be an opportunity for public school advocates to go on the offensive in strengthening our public schools.

I strongly urge all superintendents, school board members and other education leaders to do some research on the virtual school services available. Two of them can be found at and I am in no way connected with these companies and am not endorsing their programs. I am simply suggesting that since they are two of the largest players providing various options to school boards for virtual education, they should be carefully investigated and considered.