Classroom Technology

Wisconsin District Denies Some Students Enrollment in Virtual Schools

By Benjamin Herold — August 31, 2017 3 min read
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A Wisconsin school district is under fire from virtual-school proponents for not allowing its students to enroll in full-time online schools outside the open-enrollment window required by state law.

The spat involves only a small number of children in the 5,100-student Manitowoc school district, about an hour and half north of Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan. But it highlights some of the regulatory and philosophical debates that are roiling the oft-criticized virtual-school sector.

Wisconsin law requires that traditional public school districts inform parents of the full range of educational options available to them, including the state’s nearly three dozen full-time online schools. Districts must also allow students to enroll in those other schools during an open-enrollment period that runs from February through April each year.

But Wisconsin districts have leeway in how they handle transfer requests outside of that window.

Superintendent Mark Holzman cited two main reasons for the Manitowoc district’s decision to deny students who seek to enroll in virtual schools through an alternative process.

“We’re not a huge district, and we’ve already hired teachers and made plans for these students to attend,” Holzman said.

“We’ve also found that students who were applying to virtual schools outside the open-enrollment window were not having success,” he said. “The virtual school sends them back to us four or six months later without having accumulated any credits, and we have to find a program that works for them.”

Holzman said that each year, only about 10 Manitowoc students successfully enroll in virtual schools during the approved period. Only a couple of students each year seek to enroll outside the established window. Those who are denied have the right to appeal the decision to the state department of public instruction.

Manitowoc’s 4-year graduation rate is 84.3 percent, almost on par with the Wisconsin state average of 88.2 percent. By comparison, the Appleton eSchool, run out of the nearby Appleton School District, has a 4-year graduation rate of 50 percent. The Wisconsin Virtual Academy, operated in conjunction with K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit operator of full-time online schools, has a four-year graduation rate of 64 percent.

Still, proponents of full-time virtual schools described Manitowoc’s practice as “an outrageous abuse of power that shows a callous and malicious distrust of parents.”

“Children are not vessels for state aid and school districts should not be standing in the way of parents exercising the educational choice guaranteed them by Wisconsin state law,” Peter Berg, the president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, told the Herald Times Reporter.

Bruce Friend, the chief operating officer for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said his group isn’t sure how many states take an approach similar to Wisconsin’s when it comes to allowing year-round enrollments in full-time virtual schools.

“It really gets down to a philosophical debate on what rights students and parents have,” Friend said. “If it’s a quarter of the way through the school year, and a parent feels their student’s needs aren’t being met, why wouldn’t online school be an option for them?”

But Michael K. Barbour, an education professor at Touro University in California and an expert on online schools, said that Wisconsin’s policy and Manitowoc’s approach make sense, although it’s no surprise that some are unhappy.

“The first thing I thought when I saw this was it’s just another example of [virtual-school operators] complaining about state legislation,” Barbour said. “They complain about any regulation that denies them unfettered access to the market.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.