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Virtual schools debate hits home

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Associated Press and Gazette Staff
January 16, 2008

Cross Plains seventh-grader Marcy Thompson is caught in the middle of a national policy debate that could close her school and help determine the future of online education.


Thompson is one of a growing number of students nationwide trading home schooling and public schools for virtual ones where licensed teachers oversee her progress from afar.


She is enrolled in the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, a charter school based north of Milwaukee, but spends her days 130 miles away at home studying everything from literature to algebra under her mother's guidance and a curriculum provided by the school district.


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


Supporters say virtual schools are an innovative educational option that works better for some students and is a godsend for parents who prefer their children learn from home.


But critics, including the nation's largest teacher's union, say the so-called cyber charter schools amount to little more than home schooling at taxpayers' expense. They complain they take away money from traditional public schools and profit companies who sell curricula to districts.


Wisconsin is at the center of the debate after an appeals court in December ordered the state to stop funding the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, the state's largest virtual school with 800 students.


At the time of the decision, Donna Behn, principal of the Janesville Virtual Academy and the district's director of instruction, said Janesville's new virtual school would be unaffected by the ruling because it is significantly different from many of the other virtual schools.


Among its differences, the JVA enrolls only district residents—31 of them, has a teacher for every course and does not require parents to be the primary teachers, Behn said.


The court ruling could affect nearly 3,000 students in the state and more nationwide. It was the first of its kind in the nation and has triggered a debate among lawmakers over how the schools should be funded and regulated.


The schools' supporters are preparing to fight one plan they say would cripple them in Wisconsin.


Observers say the outcome could help shape other states' laws, either restricting or encouraging the schools' growth.


"People are paying attention because online learning is really a growing phenomenon," said Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning, a trade association for online learning. "And for us to arbitrarily shut down online learning for students is a really dangerous precedent to set."


Virtual schools operate in 18 states from Colorado to Pennsylvania and enroll more than 90,000 students, according to the Virginia-based council.


They generally require parents to lead daily lessons provided by the school districts that run them. Licensed teachers monitor students' progress through e-mails, online classes and tutoring.


But students have textbooks and do not spend their whole day in front of a computer. Thompson does homework, logs online for interactive classes about once a week and is a member of a math club that meets in person.


Still, Barbara Stein of the National Education Association, the teacher's union, objected to the use of tax dollars to support what she called a new form of home schooling.


"The issue is whether a program where you don't have licensed educators and where you don't have students working directly with other students should be getting fully funded as though it were a quality educational experience," she said.


Siding with a Wisconsin teacher's union, the appeals court ruled the school was violating Wisconsin's open enrollment, charter school and teacher licensing laws.


The court found parents were the primary educators—a violation of a state law requiring public school teachers to be licensed. And districts cannot receive taxpayer money for students who do not attend school within their boundaries under current law, the court said.


Its logic could shut down a dozen state schools.


Thompson's school, which would be the first to close, will at least finish this school year while the ruling is appealed.


Thompson, 12, cried when she heard about the ruling. Now she is writing lawmakers to urge them to keep her school open in an essay called: "Why I Love My School." She was home schooled through second grade but has attended the Wisconsin Virtual Academy since it opened five years ago.


She and her mother say the school's curriculum, teachers who are specialists in subjects and interaction with other students are all preferable to home schooling.


"It's a great education option for lots and lots and lots of people and they need to save it," Thompson said before logging on to her computer for a lesson on Newton's law.


Lawmakers of both parties say they want to keep the schools open but so far can't agree on the details.


Democrats who control the Senate and the education superintendent are backing a plan that would cut the schools' funding from $6,000 per student to $3,000. That's compared to $11,000 for public school students.


Districts and advocates say virtual schools could not survive on that little money.


But Sen. John Lehman, a Racine Democrat and former high school teacher, said his plan would mean only less profit for companies such as K12 Inc., a Virginia-based company that provides curriculum to online schools in 17 states.


His critics say it's unfair to single out the company when textbook publishers, food vendors and busing companies profit from traditional schools.


K12 vice president Jeff Kwitowski said Lehman's proposal would make Wisconsin unique in refusing to embrace online learning.


"Cutting the funding will impact the teachers and the kids far more than it would impact our company," Kwitowski said.


His company and Republicans who control the Assembly are backing a competing bill that would change state law to allow the schools to stay open with few, if any, changes. Hundreds of students and parents are expected to rally in support of the plan at the Capitol today.


Rep. Brett Davis, a Republican sponsor, said Wisconsin has the chance to become a national leader in online learning.


"The bottom line is it's time to modernize education laws in Wisconsin," Davis said. "We have these great virtual schools that are doing well. I think we've become a model for the country to look at but Sen. Lehman's proposal would send us backward.”



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