Janesville73°

Ruling unlikely to affect virtual school

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Gazette Staff and Associated Press
December 6, 2007

The Janesville Virtual Academy might be safe from the effects of a court ruling this week, although the future of other virtual schools across Wisconsin is in doubt.


The public virtual schools, which enroll thousands of Wisconsin students, could be shut down after a court ordered the state to stop funding its largest one, an advocacy group warned Wednesday.


Janesville’s new virtual school, however, is significantly different from many of the others, so the court ruling may have no effect here, said Donna Behn, the JVA principal and the district’s director of instruction.


The Janesville School District might even benefit financially if students enrolled in other virtual schools return to Janesville, Behn said.


The ruling could result in school districts having to close their online charter schools in coming months and years, said Rose Fernandez, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families.


The warning came after the District 2 Court of Appeals ruled that the Wisconsin Virtual Academy was violating state law by allowing parents to assume the duties of state-licensed teachers.


The court said the school also has been violating a law requiring charter schools to be in the district that operates them. It ordered the Department of Public Instruction to stop shifting funding to the school from other districts where students live.


The school will appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and ask for a stay so that it can remain open until the case is settled, Principal Kurt Bergland said.


The Janesville Virtual Academy enrolls 31 students, all of them district residents, Behn said, so that’s not a problem.


The JVA also has a teacher for every course and does not require parents to be the primary teachers, as is the case in some other virtual schools, Behn said.


Virtual schools allow students to learn over the Internet under the direction of their parents. Students from any district can enroll in them under Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy.


About 60 Janesville-district residents are enrolled in virtual schools outside of Janesville.


Department of Public Instruction spokesman Patrick Gasper said DPI is consulting with lawyers in the Department of Justice to see how the ruling might affect the virtual schools. Gasper said a Supreme Court ruling could change the picture, and then there’s the possibility of legislative action.


“It’s a little to early to see if the schools will have to close or whether they all will have to change things,” Gasper said.


The ruling supports DPI’s position that public school students have to be taught by licensed teachers, Gasper said.


Gasper could not explain, however, why DPI approved the schools in the first place if they were violating that principle.


Supporters say virtual schools are more effective for some students, less expensive than traditional schools and popular with families who prefer to home-school their children. The schools have grown quickly across the country and in Wisconsin.


But teachers unions and other critics say the schools take away money from traditional ones and lack state oversight.


Wednesday’s ruling should prompt lawmakers to make virtual schools “accountable to the students who use them and the taxpayers who fund them,” said the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union.


WEAC filed suit in 2004 claiming the Wisconsin Virtual Academy violates the state’s open-enrollment, charter school and teacher licensing laws. State education officials also argued the school was violating the licensing requirements.


A judge threw out the lawsuit last year. The Northern Ozaukee School District, which runs the school, announced plans to expand its online offerings by creating a virtual high school after that ruling.


But the appeals court reversed the judge’s decision, siding with the union on all three claims.


Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Richard Brown agreed the school may benefit children who would not succeed in traditional schools and provides another option for home-based education.


“But it is also a public school operated with state funds, and its operation violates the statutes as they now stand,” he wrote.


Brown said parents are teaching without the state license required of all public school teachers. Even though they are not paid or employed by a district, they are acting as the school’s primary teachers, he wrote.


“The problem is not that the unlicensed WIVA parents teach their children, but that they teach in a public school,”’ Brown wrote.


He also said Northern Ozaukee is violating a law that prohibits districts from operating charter schools outside of their boundaries. The school’s administrative office is in the district, but the majority of its teachers and students are not, he wrote.


Northern Ozaukee must stop receiving state funding for students attending the virtual school since they are not physically going to school in its district, he wrote. The money pays for the operation of the school and the district keeps an oversight fee.


Gasper said the state has 12 virtual schools with about 3,000 students.


The district opened the Wisconsin Virtual Academy in 2003 to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school requires parents to devote at least four hours per day to their child’s education. Certified teachers who work for the district help monitor student progress.


Fernandez, who has four children enrolled in the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, said the ruling left her and other parents in the dark.


“I’ve been on the phone and e-mail all day with a number of parents who are just scared to death about what’s going to happen,” she said. “Many have kids who are thriving for the first time. This is a real kick in the teeth to us.”



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