Selected readings on US charter schools
According to 2012-’13 report cards for schools released this fall by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 50% of the children in virtual schools were attending one that was not meeting performance expectations, largely because of low graduation and test participation rates and high dropout rates.
The data does not represent a comprehensive sample — the state had 28 virtual charter schools last year that enrolled 6,663 students, but only eight serving a total of 4,705 students received state report cards through Wisconsin’s new accountability system.
Of those eight, four met or exceeded expectations. The other 20 did not receive ratings because they were either less than three years old, had fewer than 20 students or did not educate students tested by the state exam, DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper said.
Supporters of the schools say they can be a last resort to students who’ve struggled in traditional schools and remain prone to dropping out, and that they’re an alternative for others who learn best independently or are engaged in time-consuming outside activities.
Tom Young, a 38-year teaching veteran, started teaching at eAchieve Academy in Waukesha in 2004 to find a way to improve the one-size-fits-all education approach of brick-and-mortar schools.
“We provide a service that helps some students find a place to fit,” Young said. “I’m constantly amazed at how well we can adapt and get these kids to be successful just because they are not constrained to a brick-and-mortar school.”
Young said he believes charter schools have to stop being judged as a massive whole and instead should be looked at individually.
But critics say virtual schools are cash cows for operators who benefit from per-pupil charter school funding without having to pay the same overhead costs as traditional brick-and-mortar schools. They point to high attrition rates as being a main concern.
Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, said the report cards provide important accountability for the schools.
“(The low rankings) show that the state needs to take a step back and look at the schools that currently exist,” Brey said. “Is it the best thing for a kindergartner to go to a school without any interaction with her teacher?”
Virtual education is a hot-button issue nationwide, with the largest for-profit operator of the schools, K12 Inc., coming under pressure in recent years for its schools’ low performance.
K12 operates Wisconsin’s largest virtual school, Wisconsin Virtual Academy, authorized by the McFarland School District.
Legislation provides boost
Enrollment is on the rise in Wisconsin’s virtual schools, thanks largely to legislation that lengthened the period of time parents have to consider enrolling in them during the state’s open enrollment period.
The state has not released fall 2013 enrollment counts, but in 2012, virtual schools were up more than 1,700 students from fall 2011.
Like other charter schools, virtual charter schools are eligible for $7,775 annually in state aid per pupil.
The schools are authorized by local school boards, but can enroll a child anywhere in the state through Wisconsin’s open enrollment provisions.
The big players are the McFarland School District’s Wisconsin Virtual Academy with 1,964 students, Waukesha’s eAchieve Academy with 901 students, Appleton’s Wisconsin Connections Academy with 734 students and Northern Ozaukee’s Wisconsin Virtual Learning with 725 students.
But growth in virtual charter schools also can be traced to the growing number of districts creating smaller, more tailored online schools.
Hayward Center for Individualized Learning, in Hayward, has an enrollment of 115 and “exceeds expectations” on the report cards.
Craig Olson, superintendent of the Hayward School District, and Crystal Hexum, the school’s coordinator, said the smaller size helps them reach the results they are trying to see.
The school takes an unusual step for a virtual charter, encouraging students to attend a weekly enrichment class in person. Hexum believes the relationships they build, and the ability to reach out and accommodate students, is one reason for its state ranking.
Olson and Hexum said the problems that other virtual charters have do not affect Hayward Center.
Three of the virtual schools — eAchieve, iForward and Wisconsin Virtual Learning — are discussing with DPI officials how to modify the report-card calculations to accurately reflect the performance of virtual charters.
“It is unfortunate that we are penalized for giving students one last chance — who were already at risk of dropping out before we accepted them — who then don’t make it,” said Rick Nettesheim, eAchieve Academy’s principal.
Melissa Horn, the executive director and principal of Wisconsin Virtual Learning, said she believes virtual charters need to be held accountable and therefore would not apply for an “alternative school status” that can exempt schools from state report cards.
Wisconsin Virtual Learning did not meet the state’s performance expectations in 2012, after meeting expectations in 2011, largely because it did not have 95% of students participate in the annual state achievement test. Horn said parents opted out of the testing.
The largest virtual school in the state “meets few expectations” on the state report card.
Gary Miron is an education professor at Western Michigan University who has researched the performance and funding of virtual charter schools and remains skeptical of their outcomes.
“The consensus from all these studies is that virtual education is not working well at the lower levels (of education),” he said.
“We believe it can work for kids with a supportive, well-educated parent in the household. But if you’re not self-motivated, if you can’t self-regulate, if you don’t have a structured learning environment, and if you don’t have a supportive adult around,” you probably won’t, he added.
Source: Journal Sentinel – by Eric Oliver