Virtual Schools Win Support of Wisconsin Parents, Children

Published March 1, 2008

Parents, children, school choice advocates, and some lawmakers in Wisconsin are banding together in an effort to keep a choice option available to the state’s families after a controversial state court decision.

More than 1,100 students attending virtual schools in Wisconsin gathered at the state capitol in late January to show their support for a bill aimed at keeping their schools open.

Last December, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals rendered a decision in a four-year-old case filed against the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), a virtual charter school enrolling more than 700 students statewide, by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).

The union argued that because WIVA is a virtual school that provides curricula through K-12, Inc. (the nation’s largest provider of online education), and because parents monitor much of the work their kids are doing, the district that houses WIVA employs non-certified teachers–violating a state law. Accepting that reasoning, the court ruled any school district educating students who don’t attend school within its physical boundaries can’t receive taxpayer funds.

Although the parents were happy with WIVA and student achievement was high, Wisconsin state law was interpreted to mean the parents were too involved with their kids’ education. Mike Dean, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of WIVA, described it as a battle between twenty-first century individualized instruction and nineteenth century certification concepts.

Ripple Effects

If allowed to stand, the court’s ruling could affect virtual schools in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington as well. Collectively, virtual schools in those states, combined with Wisconsin, educate 90,000 students, according to the North American Council for Online Learning trade association.

Wisconsin currently has 12 virtual schools.

“While the [state] supreme court decides whether to take up the appeal in the virtual school case, there are several well-intentioned legislators looking for a legislative fix,” Rose Fernandez, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, told the crowd at the rally.

“We have union dues-paying teachers, parents, kids, school administrators, and those well-intentioned legislators on our side,” Fernandez continued. “The teachers union, which wants to close these schools, stands alone with their allies at the state Department of Public Instruction. We hope this massive civics lesson today will help bring even more allies our way. AB 697 is the only legislation out there that will keep these schools open.”

Permanent Fix?

State Sens. John Lehman (D-Racine) and Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and state Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon) worked out a deal to impose a set of standards on virtual schools and cut their per-pupil funding from the $5,845 they received before the ruling to $3,000.

Wisconsin public schools receive $11,000 per student. Parental satisfaction and student achievement are generally much lower than in privately run schools and for homeschoolers.

The standards the legislators propose would require virtual students to receive the same number of instructional hours per year as those in traditional classrooms; make sure only certified, licensed teachers develop lesson plans and grade assignments, and that they complete 30 hours of training in online education within two years; and make all virtual schools’ records subject to the state’s open-records law.

In addition, the measure would require teachers to respond to inquiries from parents and students within 24 hours; define “truancy” for online students and keep those records; and allow the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to run its own online academy, to provide advice and suggest standards for districts that want to start their own virtual schools statewide.

Compromise Bill

Legislators said they would like to see the bill passed and on Gov. Jim Doyle’s (D) desk by March 1. DPI Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster said she would recommend he sign it.

As of late January, WEAC had not decided whether to support the compromise or try to defeat it.

“We hope to move our compromise through committees and through both houses of the legislature to get it on the governor’s desk very soon,” Lehman wrote in a January 25 op-ed criticizing the coverage given the case by The Journal-Times, a Racine newspaper.

“The real story is that we are doing everything we can on this issue to put politics aside and do what is right for all the children and all the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Lehman noted.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.