Audit: Wis. Virtual Schools Close to Capacity

Audit finds increasing popularity of online education.

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The continued popularity of Wisconsin’s virtual schools is pushing them near capacity, which may force the state legislature to revisit an enrollment cap put in place two years ago, according to a recent audit.

The state’s 15 virtual schools offer classes from kindergarten through high school over the Internet, allowing students to attend from home. Such schools have been growing in popularity in Wisconsin and nationwide as an alternative for students who want to take courses not available at their regular schools, or who may not otherwise perform as well in a traditional school.

But the future of Wisconsin’s virtual schools was put in jeopardy when a state appeals court ruled in 2007 that the largest one, Wisconsin Virtual Academy, was operating in violation of open-enrollment, charter school, and teacher-licensing laws. The lawsuit was brought by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Advocates for virtual schools successfully lobbied the legislature to change state law so those schools could continue operating despite the court ruling. A deal reached in 2008 made a number of changes in response to the ruling, including establishing a 5,250-student cap on open enrollment.

Parents Pleased

Under open enrollment, students may attend schools outside the district in which they live. The policy is vital for the success of virtual schools, where 91 percent of the students come from other districts.

Virtual Education and the States

During the 2008-09 school year, state virtual schools existed in at least 27 states. An additional six states had state-led e-learning initiatives that offered services to local school districts.

The audit shows there is no justification for continuing the enrollment cap, said Julie Thompson, the vice president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families.

“These schools are obviously serving their population very well,” Ms. Thompson said, citing findings in the audit that more than 90 percent of parents and guardians contacted said they were satisfied. Ms. Thompson’s daughter is a freshman at Wisconsin Virtual Academy, which is operated by the 2,600-student McFarland school district.

The audit also assuaged concerns about the qualifications of teachers at virtual schools. It showed that as of the 2007-08 school year, all 161 virtual school teachers were licensed in the state and teaching the appropriate subjects and grades.

The audit did find that the performance of virtual school students, based on three years of statewide test results, was inconsistent. Students had higher reading scores than other public school students, but their math scores were generally lower.

Enrollment Increases

Ms. Thompson said the audit’s positive findings about virtual schools are expected to persuade state lawmakers to remove the enrollment cap. Such bills have been introduced by Republicans but haven’t gone anywhere in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

“There’s simply no reason to have an arbitrary cap anymore,” said Rep. Brett Davis, a Republican who is sponsoring one of the bills and worked with virtual school families on the compromise passed in 2008.

Mr. Davis said he would be calling on Democrats to schedule a hearing on removing the cap.

Mr. Davis and Ms. Thompson said they expect the enrollment cap to be reached within the next year or two. Overall enrollment in Wisconsin virtual schools has increased an average of more than 21 percent annually since 2004.

This month, Education Week began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.

Read the winter issue of Education Week Digital Directions to learn more about digital tools for customizing learning, the role of e-learning in personalizing education, teacher use of whiteboards, Twitter in the classroom, and student perspectives about how schools could use technology more effectively.

The window for parents to take advantage of open enrollment for next school year closed on Feb. 19.

This school year, nearly 5,100 students applied for open enrollment to attend virtual schools in Wisconsin, but only 3,635 ultimately enrolled full time.

A spike in interest was due in part to statewide television, print, and radio advertising by some schools and to a policy allowing for enrollment to be done online, the audit bureau said.

Wisconsin has seen an explosion in advertising by virtual schools. The amount spent went from just $4,500 in the 2002-03 school year to nearly $715,000 in 2007-08, the audit said.

Vol. 29, Issue 22, Pages 10-11

Published in Print: February 24, 2010, as Wis. Mulls Scrapping State Enrollment Cap For Its Virtual Schools
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