Special Report

Virtual Ed. Enrollment Caps Face Greater Scrutiny

By Constance Gustke — April 23, 2010 8 min read
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Online education enrollment is growing quickly in K-12—about 30 percent a year. So some states have tempered that growth with caps on student enrollment, a legislative move that is now facing increasing scrutiny, educators and experts in the field say.

The two most-cited examples for enrollment caps are in Wisconsin and Oregon, which limited student enrollment in recent years. Both states placed temporary caps on full-time state virtual charter schools to limit fast growth. But they are now studying the programs to determine if caps are still the right approach from both a fiscal and an educational perspective.

E-learning advocates argue that it’s going to be harder for states to add caps down the road. Some say that it’s a political compromise that other states are trying to avoid. They say the bottom line is clear: Many school districts are threatened by the growing popularity of virtual schools.

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Virtual Ed. Enrollment Caps Facing Greater Scrutiny
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“The U.S. Department of Education has pushed to have enrollment caps removed,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “You’ll see fights for those caps to be lifted up.”

The Education Department’s National Educational Technology Plan, released in March, touts virtual education as one of the key approaches for how schools should use technology to improve learning. And the rapid growth of online coursetaking in higher education is frequently cited by experts as a model for the precollegiate world.

That’s why enrollment curbs frustrate online-learning advocates, who think that caps limit student choice and can have a detrimental effect on learning. They say that state policy needs to keep up with online learning that can be brought to scale, and not treat it as an add-on.

“Accountability standards are for this [kind of education],” said Peter Stewart, the senior vice president of school development for K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based online-course provider that works with about 55,000 students across the country. “In many cases, the existing accountability procedures can be adapted. But policymakers aren’t sure of this.”

Virtual schools in Wisconsin began operating in the 2002-03 school year, and enrollment took off quickly. In 2008, Wisconsin passed an act capping student enrollment in virtual schools at 5,250 total statewide open enrollment.

But that fast growth drew the attention of lawmakers and educators.

“Some of the people who wanted to know how virtual schools operate asked for an audit to see how well they’re performing,” said Richard G. Chandler, a consultant with the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, which opposes the state enrollment cap. “The people who supported the cap argued that they still needed to learn more.”

Mr. Chandler added that “some people expressed concern that virtual schools would siphon funds away from brick-and-mortar ones. But the funds follow the student, and the funding works well.”

Wisconsin state Sen. John Lehman, a Democrat, supported the cap. “Many folks thought we should encourage kids to be educated in brick-and-mortar schools,” he said. “Legislation has a lot to do with quality. You can’t have a student sign up and not go to school. Are students participating fully? Are they learning fully? Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth?”

There was another key concern: money following students out of a district. Districts with financial struggles were voicing opposition to the virtual schools, as were opponents of home schooling.

‘Very Positive Reviews’

But public support appears to be shifting. Wisconsin’s virtual charter public schools got favorable marks in the February audit done by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau. Overall, parents, high school students, and teachers were satisfied with virtual schools—with approval ratings of over 90 percent from all three groups.

The audit also showed that 95 percent of virtual high school students surveyed were satisfied with the availability and amount of contact with their teachers. Also, some experts pointed out that virtual schools proved to be a good value for taxpayers, since 93 percent of the money spent went to teachers and curriculum.

“Wisconsin virtual schools have been received very well, [with] very positive reviews,” said Mr. Chandler of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families. “I’ve learned that different settings work well for different kids. It’s good to have many options.”

Sen. Lehman applauded the results, too. “The test results were pretty good,” he said. “You have higher levels of education in parents, and they’re focused on the kids’ doing well.”

Bumping up against the existing cap is Wisconsin’s next hurdle. Currently, 3,635 students are enrolled in its virtual schools—about 0.4 percent of the K-12 student population. The cap of 5,250 could be reached by the 2011-12 school year.

“Under current trends, we’ll be hitting it soon,” said Mr. Chandler. “We don’t think that students should have limits. In states where there aren’t any caps, maybe one percent of students choose virtual schools.”

Oregon offers another high-profile example of how enrollment caps have worked. In 2009, the state passed a two-year moratorium on virtual school enrollments. The twist is that some virtual school enrollments are capped, and others aren’t.

“Virtual schools were growing quite quickly,” said Christina Martin, a policy analyst at the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank based in Portland, Ore. “And Oregon needed to take a moratorium to look at governance and equity issues.”

The big issue, she said, was fairness. Some students have access to virtual schools because they have a learning coach to stay home with them, while others don’t. Also, Internet connections can be costly, and not every family has one. And families have to pay for their own printing.

The result of the moratorium is that there’s a waiting list for some Oregon virtual schools.

Still, a year ago, many people thought that the virtual schools would be shut down completely, said Ms. Martin. “The [first] bill was ambiguous,” she said. “And it’s a relief that things haven’t gotten worse. The schools are safe. The bill that was passed wasn’t as bad as the original bill. It was shocking. Everyone thought the virtual schools would be shut down.”

Ms. Martin argues that virtual schools save Oregon taxpayers money. “On average, we’re spending $10,000 per pupil in Oregon per year,” she said. “Virtual schools get less than $5,600 per student.”

Also in Oregon, online schools have shown solid results. Students in virtual schools score better on standardized testing, on average, Ms. Martin said. “But it’s not for families that can’t find a learning coach,” she added. “An adult must stay with a child during the day and make sure they’re doing their work.”

And she pointed out that some students do better in a classroom setting. There’s another aspect to consider in both Oregon and Wisconsin. Teachers’ unions are concerned that virtual schools could reduce enrollment in regular schools, and that they would lose jobs as a result, some observers say.

“Money flows to online providers and not to face-to-face schools,” said Jamie Sachs, the associate director of education technology at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

The answer, say experts, is educating teachers that online schools are not a threat and could lead to more career opportunities for them. Online schools can offer more teaching possibilities for teachers who have retired or who leave to have children.

“Virtual schools can keep a lot of people in the profession that way,” Ms. Sachs said.

Fiscal Caps Coming?

The Arkansas legislature capped its state’s virtual charter school enrollment at 500 in 2009. Originally, virtual education in Arkansas was meant to embrace home-schooled children, but the program is now available to any student, not just home schoolers. As a consequence, nearly 1,000 students are on a waiting list for the Arkansas Virtual Academy, according to the Arkansas Coalition of Distance Learning Families.

K12 Inc.’s Mr. Stewart said that Arkansas’ virtual school is a “widely successful one that started as a pilot and proved itself.” But, he lamented, it’s not now allowed to grow.

“Arkansas is evolving from manufacturing into a new type of economy,” said Greg Kaza, the executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan group based in Little Rock. “Virtual education is part of that process. But there are those who don’t understand that vision. They fear what they don’t understand.” He added that Arkansas, one of the poorest states, must do things differently.

But now a new challenge for virtual schools is emerging: fiscal caps. Cash-strapped states are cutting education spending, and virtual programs are getting hit hard.

Missouri created virtual instruction programs funded by state appropriations. When the line item was zeroed out last year, entire virtual school programs were slated to close, according to experts.

“Fiscal caps are a big trend,” said iNACOL’s Ms. Patrick. “That’s going to be a problem in the next three years. And it’s more likely to happen to virtual schools than brick-and-mortar ones, since they have more funding sources.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Virtual Ed. Enrollment Caps Facing Greater Scrutiny


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