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Published in Print: August 29, 2012, as State Laws Open the Doors To Higher Virtual Ed. Enrollments

State Laws Lift Virtual Ed. Enrollment Caps

Measures lift previous caps on the number of students attending online schools

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Michigan and Louisiana are two of the latest states to lift enrollment caps at virtual charter schools—a move applauded by supporters, who see such caps as arbitrarily restrictive, but observed warily by those who view the policy moves as yet another sign that the push for online education is moving faster than measures to evaluate its success.

In response to more than 4,200 applications for the 2011-12 school year, the Louisiana state school board this past March doubled the enrollment cap at the tuition-free Louisiana Connections Academy to 1,000 students for 2012-13, higher than the original planned increase from 500 to 750.

In May, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that included raising the maximum number of students allowed at each of the state's cyber charter schools—the new law also permits up to 15 to operate—from 1,000 to 10,000 over the next three years.

In 2011, after tenacious protests from the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, that state eliminated a cap that since 2008 had limited enrollment in virtual charter schools to 5,250 statewide. The change gave thousands of students on waiting lists the opportunity to participate.

The lifting of enrollment caps is still happening unevenly around the country, and teachers' unions and others continue to object that virtual schools snatch funding from regular public schools. But the cap issue has gained traction in recent years. And it has garnered even more attention with the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grant program, which has given states financial incentives to lift or eliminate caps on charter school enrollment.

"The problem with caps is that they're a very blunt policy tool, and the way they play out, they end up artificially limiting the options students have available to them," said John Bailey, the executive director of the Digital Learning Now! campaign, part of the nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education based in Tallahassee, Fla. "They give a false sense of comfort that you're protecting kids from bad-quality programming, and that's not the case."

Mr. Bailey, a former director of the office of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, finds caps with geographic restrictions frustrating.

"If I came to you and said you could shop anywhere online, but only from stores in your zip code, that's weird, right?" he said. "That's similar to the environment we're in now in education. Can you imagine the outcry if we told teachers we'd love for them to collaborate with each other, but only with those from their own district?"

Concerns aside, Mr. Bailey said he's encouraged by the "broad, bipartisan support" behind the dismantling of enrollment caps.

There still are accompanying restrictions in some cases. In Michigan, for example, no more than 2 percent of the state's students can be enrolled in cyber charter schools overall. Oregon's decision to remove its cap in 2011, meanwhile, came with the stipulation that no more than 3 percent of a district's students can enroll in online schools without permission from their home district to do so.

Even so, some wish the pace of growth were more measured.

The Center for Public Education released a report in May titled "Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools" in large part because there seemed to be a fast-growing number of virtual schools yet few facts on their effectiveness, said Patte Barth, the center's director. The center, an initiative of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, encourages states to exercise cautious optimism when weighing whether to lift an enrollment cap.

"We're not opposed to it, but we are very, very concerned," Ms. Barth said. She relayed anecdotal reports of students signing up for courses but then dropping out after two or three months to return to a brick-and-mortar school, a move that neither affects a virtual school's published success rate or reveals its rate of attrition.

"We'd like people to slow down, be more careful, ask a lot more questions, and get some more information before expanding these opportunities and enrolling more students," Ms. Barth added. "We want to have some assurances that what is happening is really helping kids."

'A Growth Industry'

Louisiana state education leaders promoted the enrollment boost at the public Louisiana Connections Academy as a way to prevent some students from being required to attend low-performing schools. (The school served 597 students last school year, more than the 500-student cap, because Louisiana charter schools are allowed to enroll up to 120 percent of their approved enrollment.)

Policy Developments

• At least six states have eliminated or raised enrollment caps for virtual charter schools over the past few years. Louisiana and Michigan are two of the latest to make that policy move. Arkansas, Hawaii, Oregon, and Wisconsin had already put such measures in place.

• In Michigan, where legislation to lift caps on virtual charters goes into effect in March 2013, the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy had 6,100 applications for 1,000 seats for all of 2011-12. Since the school opened enrollment in March, it has received 3, 602 applications.

• Decisions to remove enrollment caps have been controversial. Those who support lifting the caps denounce them as arbitrarily restrictive and praise their bipartisan endorsement, while critics worry that online education is growing faster than measures to evaluate its success.

• With the U.S. Department of Education offering states financial incentives to lift or eliminate charter school enrollment caps, the issue is expected to continue drawing attention. The Center for Public Education, based in Alexandria, Va., encourages states to exercise cautious optimism, however, when making such a decision, to be certain the move will ultimately help students.

But Wayne Free, an assistant executive director for the Louisiana Association of Educators in Baton Rouge, an affiliate of the National Education Association, had asked the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to delay a decision on expanding enrollment. Though not opposed to virtual schools in theory, and a believer that blended learning programs have value, he'd pointed to statistics showing that test scores in the state's two virtual charter schools are generally lower across the board than in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Mr. Free, who was hoping for further study, said he is fairly certain that the boost is only the beginning.

"I think the state will do everything it can to increase dramatically the number of students who are allowed to attend these schools," he said, "as long as there are a lot of outside dollars flowing in to push the process along. I hope I'm wrong and that at some point, someone says, 'Let's look at the data.' "

Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a think tank based in Boston, thinks Massachusetts could be doing more to help virtual schools grow.

The state's first and only full-time online school, Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield, opened in September 2010 with both numeric and geographic enrollment restrictions. Run by K12 Inc., a for-profit education management company based in Herndon, Va., the school, which will serve students from kindergarten through 10th grade in 2012-13, enrolled some 475 students on average last school year and hit the 500-student limit several times.

Interim Principal Timothy Wilson expects to reach the limit again at the beginning of this school year. In addition, the academy must maintain a minimum enrollment of 2 percent of the Greenfield Public Schools' student population, the equivalent of at least 10 students.

"If you think about the power of e-learning, this isn't a terribly smart way to approach things," said Mr. Stergios.

Now that Wisconsin has lifted its cap, Charlie Heckel, the principal of the Rural Virtual Academy charter school in Medford, Wis., said he has had more inquiries than before, and he no longer has to break the news to families that he can't help them.

The new system isn't all smooth sailing, however. "This is a growth industry, and at the last minute, I can take a lot of kids in through the door, so it's difficult for me to make solid plans going forward," said Mr. Heckel, citing such tasks as ordering books and materials, preparing staff members, scheduling orientations, and conducting placement tests for each new student. The public school served 120 students in preschool through 8th grade in 2011-12.

Susan Tomasek-Swan from Ovid, Mich., had to deal with another type of uncertainty this summer. Because Michigan's legislation won't go into effect until March 2013, she wouldn't have known until the 2013-14 school year whether her 12-year-old daughter would be able to attend Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, where her daughter was on the waiting list since March and where her 9-year-old son was already a student. MVCA, also managed by K12 Inc., had 6,100 applications for 1,000 seats for all of 2011-12; since the school opened enrollment in March, it has received 3,602 applications for the 2012-13 school year.

She was full of questions: "Do I spend a lot of money on a curriculum and homeschool her but then have her get in? And if I keep her in the public schools, do you know how hard it would be to pull her out if her number gets called in the middle of the year?"

But Ms. Tomasek-Swan found out the last week in July that her daughter had been accepted. "It was a big sigh of relief when we got the call," she said.

The chairman of the education committee of the Michigan Senate, Phil Pavlov, a Republican, characterized the political battle over the Parent Empowerment Education Reform package, a set of proposals that included lifting the state's enrollment cap, as the most difficult of his career.

"But now that there's competition for dollars, the officials who fought so hard against any potential migration out of their brick-and-mortar schools are saying, 'OK, now how can we raise our game?' " he said. "That was absolutely our bottom-line intent with this package."

Steve Buckstein, the founder and senior policy analyst at the Cascade Policy Institute, a think tank in Portland, Ore., that promotes the message that competition improves education for all students, expects that additional states seeking to remove enrollment caps are also likely to face opposition.

"It's a continuing concern that people who are critics of these schools will continue to look for ways to reduce their availability to students," he said.

Vol. 32, Issue 02, Page s14

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