The largest teachers’ union in Minnesota is challenging the legality of the state’s funding of an online-learning program offered statewide by a small, rural district. The union’s lawsuit has ignited a debate about the proper roles of teachers and parents in publicly financed “virtual” schools.
Called the Minnesota Virtual Academy, the program was started in November 2002 by the Houston, Minn., school district. It enrolls 280 students from outside the 500-student district and stands to receive this year almost half the money Minnesota is providing to online schools under a law the legislature passed last spring.
But the lawsuit, which Education Minnesota and two school districts filed on Oct. 9, charges that the online program—which uses the curriculum and other services provided by K12 Inc., a company led by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett—does not provide adequate supervision by state-certified teachers. That inadequacy runs afoul of state education law, the suit contends.
The outcome of the suit may determine whether the Houston district can continue to operate the academy.
For McLean, Va.-based K12, the suit is a legal test of its business strategy of starting “virtual academies” in partnership with public schools and receiving state funding under charter or online education laws. The company enrolls about 2,000 home schoolers directly, and is operating “virtual academies” in 11 states, according to company spokesman Bryan Flood.
Kim D. Ross, the superintendent of the Houston district, said the online academy allows him to help educate students who have not been successful in traditional classes.
In addition, Mr. Ross said that the MNVA, as the online program is known, provides the tiny district a rare opportunity to make greater use of technology, to leverage the extra state aid that comes from having an increased enrollment, and to offer a wider variety of courses.
“We’re aware that if public education isn’t leading the charge with online learning, somebody else will,” Mr. Ross said. “We have to look outside the box.”
The Houston district, 120 miles southeast of Minneapolis, stands to receive $5,100 for each student this year who transferred from another public school district to the online academy. That will bring more than $1.4 million into the district, which this year has a regular budget of $4 million.
The new money covers the district’s expenses in operating the program, such as the technology costs and salaries of the 15 teachers the district employs for it.
After those expenses are covered, any leftover state money is paid to K12. Last year, the district paid K12 $51,000 for four months of services between November and March, Mr. Ross said.
The 15 teachers, who are state-certified and work out of their homes around the state, communicate with students and their parents by e-mail and telephone. The students complete lessons online, using computers and mailed learning materials. Teachers also arrange field trips and occasional face-to-face activities with their classes, Mr. Ross said.
But officials at Education Minnesota, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that represents 55,000 teachers statewide, detect a “plain” violation of the state requirement that “any person providing instruction in a public school must hold a valid Minnesota teaching license in the field,” according to the lawsuit.
Education Minnesota officials quote from the MNVA Web site to make their case. The site states that “responsible adults (usually parents) guide students through their daily coursework.” It also states that only 20 percent of the instructional program is on computer; the rest consists of other activities at home.
“That exemplified our point,” said Harley M. Ogata, the general counsel of Education Minnesota.
Mr. Ogata said the lawsuit is defending a union “core value,” the primacy of Minnesota- certified teachers in providing instruction in public schools.
The state has not yet replied to the lawsuit, which was filed in a state court in Ramsey, Minn., and state officials were reluctant to talk in depth about the pending litigation.
But Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the suit involved “a disagreement of legislative intent.”
The state has certified the MNVA as an eligible service provider under Minnesota’s online-learning law.
The state argues that certified teachers are involved enough in the delivery of the curriculum for the Houston program to meet the law’s requirements.
Mr. Ross noted that online students must meet the same state standards and take the same tests as other Minnesota students.
The two Minneapolis-area school systems that joined the union in the lawsuit—the 8,300- student Hopkins district and the 11,200-student Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district—argue that state funding of the Houston program threatens their efforts to create online-learning programs.