Wisconsin’s Virtual Schools Could Close this Summer

Published April 1, 2008

The Wisconsin State Senate has voted to limit the number of students allowed to enroll in the state’s 18 virtual charter schools, after Gov. Jim Doyle (D) promised to veto any virtual schools legislation that did not include such an amendment.

Lawmakers drafted legislation to save virtual academies after a December 2007 court decision determined the online schools violate state law because parents are heavily involved with their children’s work. At press time, the bill was pending in the Republican-controlled Assembly after its late February passage in the Senate.

Without the updates to state law, virtual schools would have been forced to shut down completely this July. Experts say the inclusion of an enrollment cap might save schools for a time, but the long-term consequences could be dire.

Long Fight

On December 5, 2007, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals determined the Northern Ozaukee School District’s operation of the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA) violated statutes dealing with charter schools, open enrollment, and teacher licensing. Legislators immediately sought to fix state law developed long before lawmakers even imagined the possibility of a public school based on the Internet.

Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning, said Wisconsin teachers’ unions have been seeking to shut down cyber charter schools for several years. Unions, she said, weren’t happy to see state funds go to online academies instead of to traditional, four-walled schools.

After two failed attempts to shut WIVA down through the courts, a third appeal was successful.

Setting Precedent

Virtual schools such as WIVA are different from homeschool programs. Online academies allow students to work on the same state-approved curriculum as their public school peers–but the work is done from home instead of in a traditional bricks-and-mortar school.

Such virtual schools hire licensed teachers to oversee student work and progress, follow state guidelines, and comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

But unions in Wisconsin claimed that because the student’s home becomes the classroom, a licensed teacher must be physically present. Since parents are not licensed, virtual schools shouldn’t be considered for public education funding, they say.

“They looked at the way the statute is worded on ‘what is a teacher’ and applied it in an absurd way–giving it the ‘four walls’ test,” Patrick said. “It is a prime example of how policy issues around online learning are really important. Legislators need to be ahead of the curve and make sure laws are up to date to avoid such challenges.”

Calling for Caps

Wisconsin legislators immediately went to work to update the law, creating compromise language to address the court decision in order to save WIVA and several other virtual academies statewide. But Doyle said in mid-February he would not sign the compromise unless it put strict limits on the number of students allowed to attend classes online.

According to a February 19 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, Doyle told lawmakers he wants the cap in order to study whether the rapid growth of online schools is negatively affecting traditional classrooms. The cap would limit enrollment to those already in the program–approximately 3,500 students statewide.

“I want to make sure that students who are currently attending a virtual charter school or who have enrolled during the current open enrollment period can continue to attend that school without interruption while we study those issues,” Doyle said.

State Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon) worked on the compromise legislation. The bill, he said, would have taken care of all the court’s issues–defining a virtual charter school and outlining the requirements needed to keep such a school in compliance with state law. But it did not include Doyle’s required cap.

“We did have a great compromise,” Davis said. “We tried to make it match traditional schools, mirroring the number of hours in school, the ability to have teacher contact–all of that. We were happy to put those things in because virtual schools were already doing it. Unfortunately, Doyle said he won’t sign it unless we put a cap on enrollment.”

Excluding Poor Kids

That is something Davis is not willing to do, because a cap would cripple schools such as WIVA. Moreover, it would limit options for students who just can’t succeed in a traditional school setting, he said.

“For one of the first times in our state history we are going to be denying people access to public education,” Davis said. Parents like having the choice of online learning–and if public funding of virtual schools becomes limited, the demand for them will be so great that private organizations will step in to run them. But that will make the cost go up, Davis said.

“Then only wealthy families will be able to afford the option,” Davis said. “[Doyle] is cutting off low-income families.”

Expanding Options

Patrick agreed, saying virtual schools give parents an effective and necessary option to meet the educational needs of their kids.

“[WIVA] has a higher rate of success than [a traditional] public school–they have an innovative model,” Patrick said. “If the legislation doesn’t go through, it will be an issue for all the virtual schools in Wisconsin.”

While the Wisconsin court decision will not affect the 17 other states with virtual academies, it could prompt unions in those states to scour their own states’ laws to come up with similar challenges–creating confusion about what defines online learning.

Davis said if Doyle doesn’t sign the compromise into law, the legislature could attempt a veto override, but he’s not sure there is enough support.

“If that doesn’t work, it will essentially go back to the court,” Davis said. “The Wisconsin Supreme Court could decide to take it up and overturn it.”

Unless that happens, the state’s virtual academies are in danger of losing funding as of July 2008, compromising students’ educational choice–which Davis said would be a tragedy.

Wendy Cloyd ([email protected]) writes from Alaska.

For more information …

“Doyle wants cap, study on virtual schools,” by Steven Walters, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 19, 2008: http://blogs.jsonline.com/allpoliticswatch/archive/2008/02/19/doyle-wants-cap-study-on-virtual-schools.aspx