From promotional radio and TV commercials and direct mailings aimed at parents to newspaper headlines and explosive enrollment growth, “virtual schools” and “virtual students” are this school year’s buzzwords in Oklahoma.
A Tulsa World analysis of state records shows that the number of Oklahoma public school students doing schoolwork through computer-based programs has increased nearly 400 percent over the last three years. The state’s most recent official count of virtual students for 2010-11 was 5,429.
“Everyone is trying to get their arms around the scope of what’s being offered and how fast it’s moving,” said Damon Gardenhire, the communications director for the Oklahoma Department of Education. “While this is something we think education as a whole should embrace, like anything else, it is something we should be taking a close look at in terms of quality and consistency. There is a lot of excitement and also a desire to ensure that we’re doing all the right things.”
While the programs are offered at no cost to students, most are operated by for-profit companies that contract with public school districts.
1.5 million K-12 students were enrolled in online-only or blended (virtual and face-to-face instruction) courses during the 2009-10 school year.
38 states have state-sponsored virtual schools or state-led online- learning initiatives.
27 states and the District of Columbia have full-time online schools serving students statewide.
20 states are providing both supplemental and full-time online- learning options statewide.
SOURCE: International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL)
The K-8 White Oak school district serves a regular enrollment of 50 students, but boasts an additional 881 virtual students, in part because of its early foray into online education as well as its partnership with K12 Inc. The Herndon, Va.-based virtual education company promotes its programs through radio, television, online, and direct-mail advertising.
K12 offers virtual programs in more than half the states, and most are named for the state they serve. So a commercial seeking out students for the “Oklahoma Virtual Academy” is actually seeking out students in grades 1-8 to transfer into the White Oak district and students in grades 9-12 to transfer into the pre-K-12 Wynona public school system, the company’s virtual high school partner in Oklahoma. The Wynona district serves 133 students and an additional 170 virtual students.
The arrangement is similar for Oklahoma’s first virtual charter school, Epic One on One, which is preparing to open its inaugural academic year in early September. The 100-student, K-12 Graham public school system, which sponsors Epic and served an additional 150 virtual students in 2010-11, gets to keep 5 percent of state funds as an “administrative fee,” but the rest will be overseen by the charter school’s independent governing board.
Questions and concerns about profit-driven motives and accountability for public dollars are the ones most commonly raised by leaders of school districts losing students to other schools’ virtual programs.
Rick Mansheim, who is employed by K12 as head of school for the Oklahoma Virtual Academy, said the company is actually losing money on the venture right now.
“There is no management fee for K12 in Oklahoma because there isn’t enough funding in Oklahoma to make that work,” he said. “The money basically all stays in Oklahoma in the form of salaries and curriculum materials, and K12 actually contributes some money. We do believe that at some point there is a future here. We believe in what we do. We view it as an investment in school choice.”
Mr. Mansheim also responded to reports of high course-dropout rates among virtual students.
For example, the state education department had White Oak’s official virtual-student count at 973 for 2010-11. Those official numbers were used to determine state funding, but Mr. Mansheim said the program ended the school year with only 837 students on the rolls.
“That’s really the norm with online,” Mr. Mansheim said. “The students sign up for it; they get into it and find out it’s not as easy as they thought. We end up losing a lot of students just because of the rigor of the program. Also, there is a lot more involvement for the parent or learning coach. We also lose a lot during state testing.”
Dusty Chancey, the superintendent of the Graham public schools, Epic One on One’s sponsor, readily admits to having concerns that online learning is simply “not for some kids.”
“Most kids can text, but not all of them can learn the core curriculum in the virtual classroom,” he said. “They need the personal interaction. A lot of these students need the opportunity to try this mode of education but soon decide it’s not for them.”
Copyright ©2011, Tulsa World, Okla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Virtual Education Seeing Explosive Growth in Oklahoma