Special Report
School & District Management

Online Schools Prove Tough Rivals in Quest for Students, Funds

By Michelle R. Davis — January 03, 2014 5 min read
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The Wilkes-Barre school district in Pennsylvania is surrounded by cyber charter schools: There are 16 in the state, all trying to lure new students. So the 7,000-student district is trying to call attention to its fledgling virtual school to keep on its rolls students who might be attracted to online education.

“We need to compete with these cyber-charter schools,” said Bernard Prevuznak, the superintendent of the Wilkes-Barre district. “We have to do a better job of attracting these students back so we don’t have to pay for them out of our budget.”

As in many states, funding in Pennsylvania follows public school students wherever they enroll. Wilkes-Barre loses $2 million a year solely to virtual charter schools that enroll district students, Mr. Prevuznak said. This school year marks the second that the district has had its own cyber school, which is run by an outside company, but the program is still small, he said.

Across the country, the rise of virtual education is influencing how school districts use their money and other resources and what programs they develop. They’re responding both to cyber charter schools that can provide students with an online-only education and to state-sponsored virtual schools that offer students either full-time online learning or the ability to choose from online courses to supplement their schools’ traditional offerings.

“In states where either there are a lot of full-time online schools or really strong state virtual schools, we’ve seen the highest amount of district activity,” said Matthew Wicks, the chief operating officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. Those education alternatives “create both an awareness and competition” for districts, he said.

That’s the case in the 30,000-student Indian Prairie district, in suburban Chicago, which is in the planning stages for its own online learning program. The district is joining four others to form a consortium to create a virtual school, said Stacey L. Gonzales, the director of instructional technology.

Thinking Strategically

She said the competition from cyber charter companies like Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., which has moved into Illinois with its own programs, “absolutely” pushed her district further and faster when it came to starting its own program.

Previously, the district’s approach to online learning was piecemeal: Some tech-savvy teachers created online courses, but there was no thoughtful plan for the future of virtual courses in the district, she said.

“The competition forced us to think about it in a more strategic way,” Ms. Gonzales said. “It’s been a paradigm shift.”

In states like Pennsylvania, which has had cyber charter schools for many years, that trend toward online learning in traditional districts is also well-established. But observers can watch the phenomenon unfold in Illinois, where the push to create online charter schools is newer.

“Districts are starting to recognize that this is something that is coming there as well,” said John Watson, the founder of the Durango, Colo.-based Evergreen Education Group, a consulting company that tracks virtual education trends. In many places, “district leadership is responding directly to those online schools, and … it’s raising awareness for families who say, ‘We’ve heard about this but would like to keep our children in the district. Do you have an option like this?’ ”

In addition to being spurred on by the competition, the Indian Prairie district had serious concerns about the quality of outside programs, like those of K12 Inc., which has received criticism in the past few years over what some see as the insufficient rigor of its courses and the low academic performance of some of the schools it manages.

When students take online courses as a supplement, Ms. Gonzales said, officials cannot be sure those offerings are up to district standards. That’s another reason behind the decision to invest time and resources in the development of a district-run online offering, she said.

“We know that we have students who are leaving us and going to other places for online courses,” Ms. Gonzales said."We’re losing those kids and the fidelity that these are high-quality courses.”

In some places, the competition from outside cyber forces is steering districts to develop their own programs; in other places, the establishment of a respected state-sponsored virtual school has the opposite effect.

Tina Contorno, the director of secondary curriculum and career, technical, and agricultural education for the 12,500-student Troup, Ga., school system, said her district relies on the Georgia Virtual School for its online courses.

That means the district doesn’t have to shift money, teachers, and time to developing its own program or pay for an outside company to provide a program.

Minimizing the Drain

While state funding follows students who take courses from Georgia Virtual, Ms. Contorno said it’s a small portion of the overall funding the district receives from local, state, and federal sources. About 30 students in the district take courses from Georgia Virtual at any one time, she said.

“We have not even considered creating our own virtual school,” she said. “That’s never been a discussion.”

The same goes for most schools in Montana, said Robert Currie, the executive director of the state-sponsored Montana Digital Academy, which provides courses to 98 percent of the high schools in the state. Since the state pays for the virtual program, districts “seem to like the arrangement,” he said.

The state virtual school’s teachers come directly from Montana’s local public schools. Generally, teachers instruct only one virtual course at a time, and that’s on top of their regular school courseloads, Mr. Curie said. The virtual school pays the teachers for their services—compensation that’s in addition to their district salaries. The teachers’ home districts process the payroll.

“We don’t let our teachers load up [on classes] because they have to teach in their brick-and-mortar environment,” Mr. Currie said.

Back in the Wilkes-Barre district, not only is Superintendent Prevuznak looking to beef up his online program, he’s also thinking about how to funnel dollars into marketing it to parents, students, and the community in a bid to catch up with the virtual schools in his state. That’s money that won’t go to keeping class sizes low, or to hiring more teachers or buying new curricula.

“We have to advertise, we have to promote and use public relations to get these kids back and interested in what we do,” he said.

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