For-profit out-of-state online-schools targeting Iowa students and their open enrollment $$$

Currently there are two companies that have teamed up with Iowa school districts to offer full time online enrollment for the upcoming school year.  These companies hope to take advantage of Iowa’s relatively loose open enrollment policies to draw students (and the tax dollars of their home districts) to their schools.  This is troubling both in terms of the quality of education that would be offered and the fact that our local and state school tax dollars would be funneled out of state to for profit companies.

Let me be clear that I am a public school teacher here in Iowa.  Although I don’t foresee this being a large issue in the district that I teach in, I am worried about the effect that it will have on districts across this state.  Additionally, I am a member of the Iowa State Education Association which is actively opposing these online schools.  I share this in the interest of full disclosure, but I don’t believe that either of these facts cloud my judgement about the issues raised by these schools.

The Des Moines Register has been doing a great job in covering the multiple angles and interests involved in these online academies.  They have provided coverage of an upcoming ruling on the legality of the schools from the state attorney general’s office, state Senate hearings about the schools, and the impact these schools could have.  Below are some excerpts from their various stories on this issue.

Online schools’ legality eyed written by Jason Noble, from the Des Moines Register, Feb. 16, 2012

The state attorney general’s office will issue an opinion on the legality of online schools set to open this fall under the auspices of two Iowa school districts, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The legality of the online schools has been questioned on a number of fronts, which has led to lawmakers to ask for this opinion.

The state Department of Education has OK’d the Internet-only schools, which are actively marketing their classes across the state and would receive thousands of state dollars for each student they enroll.

So the state department under Branstad appointee Director Jason Glass that oversees education in Iowa is okay with having our state’s youth educated by out of state businesses rather than in our traditionally strong Iowa schools?

The lawmakers’ concerns and attorney general’s analysis come amidst legislative consideration of a massive education-reform package sponsored by Gov. Terry Branstad that includes greater freedom for online schools.

It seems that Branstad is interested in furthering the ability of these schools to enroll Iowa students and take their tax dollars out of state.

How much money are we talking about being funneled to out of state for profit companies?

The online schools will be operated by the private, for-profit education companies Connections Academy and K12 Inc. in partnership with the CAM and Clayton Ridge districts. The companies, based in Maryland and Virginia, will receive about 97 percent of the $5,883 in state funding provided for each student they enroll, with the districts receiving the rest.

Over $5,500 dollars would be sent straight out of state for every child who enrolls in these schools!  And this at a time when Iowa districts have been dealing budget shortfalls over the last several years.  Outrageous!

Having looked at the questions of legality and cost, let’s move on to the question of quality.  As an educator, I have to tell you, I can’t imagine an online only education capable of equaling the traditional school based model.  That said, I do see a place for online learning within traditional schools–it is the wholesale movement of learning to the virtual world that I find troubling.  While my insights are of course insightful and fascinating, I don’t have a lot of factual knowledge or research in the area to work from, so let’s look to some folks who (hopefully) do.

Iowa Senate panel hears arguments for, against online schools written by Jason Noble, from the Des Moines Register, Feb. 23, 2012

Iowa educators on both sides of a divisive and controversial effort to expand internet-based schools in the state offered their views to a Senate committee on Thursday.

Defending online academies was the superintendent of one of the districts that has partnered with a private company and is now seeking to enroll students statewide in such an academy. Voicing concerns were superintendents from two small districts in northern Iowa.

[…]

CAM Community School District superintendent Steve Pelzer said the online academies represented an opportunity for students not well served by the traditional school setting. That might include students with medical issues, dropouts wishing to return to school, those who have been bullied or harassed, students currently being home-schooled, students unable to attend school for behavioral or criminal reasons, gifted students and students seeking courses not offered in their home districts.

Okay, it looks like the people arguing for these schools don’t have much in the way of data or research either.  In response, I will reiterate that I see a place for online education in supplementing traditional schooling but not replacing it.

In a joint presentation, Hudson Community School District Superintendent Anthony Voss and BCLUW Community School District superintendent Ben Petty said they supported internet-based education and the expansion of technology – but as a supplement to the traditional school setting. All-online academies, they suggested, could suffer from poor academic performance, limit students social interactions and extracurricular opportunities, breed “competition” among districts and allow public dollars to fund advertising and profits for private companies.

They showed data from Pennsylvania and Colorado, which suggested that online schools fell far short of traditional schools on measures of student achievement.

Hey, these guys agree with me!  And they seem to have some data to back them up, which is very important thing given that the stakes are high here–the education and future of many Iowa children could be significantly affected.

The information from Colorado is likely the same that was presented in this story:

State-supported online schools failing students, data show written by Burt Hubbard and Nancy Mitchell from the Colorado Springs Gazette

The investigation used previously unreleased Colorado Department of Education data to document the path of 10,500 students who were enrolled in the 10 largest online schools beginning in 2008. Those students accounted for more than 90 percent of all online students for the 2008-09 school year. The analysis found that in Colorado:

• Half the online students leave within a year. When they do, they’re often further behind academically than when they started.

• Online schools produce three times as many dropouts as they do graduates. One of every eight online students drops out of school permanently – a rate four times the state average.

• Millions of dollars are going to virtual schools for students who no longer attend online classes.

• The churn of students in and out of online schools is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar schools, which must find money in their budgets to educate students who come from online schools mid-year.

“We’re bleeding money to a program that doesn’t work,” State Sen. President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said after being informed of the I-News/EdNews findings earlier this month. Last week, Shaffer asked the state audit committee for an emergency audit of online schools to be completed before the state legislature meets in January.

So let’s see.  Online schools of dubious legality under Iowa code are looking at taking thousands of dollars per student out of state and the experience of a state that had a similar system suggests that the students involved will suffer academically while their home districts suffer financially.  I am at a real loss to understand why Jason Glass and Terry Branstad are okay with this.

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