Wisconsin Virtual Charter Schools Battle Enrollment Cap

Published January 20, 2011

Virtual charter schools in Wisconsin are pressing the state’s Department of Public Instruction to lift a cap on the number of students they’re allowed to enroll.
“We want to see [the cap] done away with altogether. It causes headaches for us, for families, for the Department of Public Instruction,” said Julie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families. “It serves no purpose. Having any kind of arbitrary cap is a waste of tax dollars for administering, and is unneeded stress for the families.”
Wisconsin education department officials say each of the state’s 14 local-district-run virtual schools is allowed to enroll as many students as it wants, but only from within its own district. The cap, they say, is on the number of students allowed to enroll in a virtual school from outside the district. Under that rule, the schools are allowed to admit up to 5,250 K-12 students from outside their district boundaries.
“In the two years since the law became effective, the cap has not been reached,” said Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for Wisconsin’s education department.
Waiting Lists Grow
Advocates for the virtual schools say the state’s explanation is misleading. Enrollment waiting lists have grown into hundreds of students—only to disappear by the beginning of the school year because families have given up on the admissions process.
“They don’t want to wait three, four, five months to find out if they’ll get in a school or not,” said Karl Peterson, executive director of the Insight School of Wisconsin, a 700-student academy based in Grantsburg.

The 2007 law that put the enrollment caps in place, Peterson explained, came when state legislators were still concerned about the experimental nature of virtual schools.
“I think there was concern several years about how virtual schools would develop and how accountable they would be,” he said. Since then, a legislative audit showed virtual schools in Wisconsin are comparable to traditional brick-and-mortar schools in achievement and public cost.
The audit’s conclusions didn’t come as a surprise to Thompson, whose high-school-sophomore daughter has been attending virtual schools since third grade.
“She’s able to work at her own pace, without a lot of the peer pressure and stress of a traditional classroom,” Thompson said of her daughter.

New Legislation Expected

Wisconsin’s proponents of virtual schools are optimistic the November election of Republican Scott Walker as governor will lead to new legislation eliminating the enrollment cap, Thompson said. They hope negotiations can be complete by the time early enrollment for the 2011-12 school year starts in February.
In the meantime, Peterson said, the state is “not allowing every student, every family to have the optimum opportunity to enroll in the school they choose.”
The virtual schools are ready, he said. The only caps on growth have come from the state.
“I believe we’d be able to serve all students,” Peterson said. “With the cap going away, I don’t see the enrollment exploding, but it would grow over time.”
Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia