Special Report
School Choice & Charters

Online Schools Prove Tough Rivals in Quest for Students, Funds

By Michelle R. Davis — January 03, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2014 edition of Education Week as In Quest to Keep Enrollment, Aid Online Schools Are Tough Rivals

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind
Student Achievement K-12 Essentials Forum Tutoring Done Right: How to Get the Highest Impact for Learning Recovery
Join us as we highlight and discuss the evidence base for tutoring, best practices, and different ways to provide it at scale.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Charter School Governance Shapes Those Schools’ Approach to Equity
New research finds that the entities governing charters influence the schools' commitment to equity.
5 min read
Young students file back into school at Somerset Academy Charter South Miami, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in South Miami, Fla.
Students head back to their classrooms at Somerset Academy charter school in Miami in December.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
School Choice & Charters Q&A Voucher Programs Gain Strength With Help From the Courts, An Expert Says
A school choice expert explains how recent rulings could prevent future voucher programs from getting blocked by opponents.
8 min read
Group of white paper planes going in one direction on a light blue background with one individual red paper plane heading in a different direction
E+/Getty
School Choice & Charters Charter School Enrollment Holds Steady After Big Early Pandemic Growth
The numbers show that most students who left their district schools in the first year of the pandemic did not return.
2 min read
Image of an empty classroom.
urfinguss/iStock/Getty
School Choice & Charters Federal Funding and Charter School Closures: What the Latest Government Data Show
The Government Accountability Office examined closure rates over 15 years and $2.5 billion of federal funding.
2 min read
Illustration of weighing funding against schools remaining open
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty