Virtual school talks continue despite veto threatEducators who work at the state’s virtual schools and the parents who enroll their children in them are working
By: By CANDY CZERNICKI /Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, The Daily Telegram
Educators who work at the state’s virtual schools and the parents who enroll their children in them are working with legislators on a compromise that would keep the online schools open, despite Gov. Jim Doyle’s promise to veto any bill that does not cap the schools’ enrollment.
A December court ruling said the 12 virtual schools, which have about 3,500 students, did not meet state standards for teacher licensing, open enrollment agreements and laws regulating charter schools.
About 15 of those 3,500 students are residents of the Superior school district service area, but the legislation doesn’t cover all the local students who take online courses.
A total of 24 Superior students take online courses but only 15 are enrolled full-time in online charter schools through open enrollment; the other nine take courses part-time through Wisconsin Virtual School while attending Superior School District.
Wisconsin Virtual School, which serves about 800 students in 200 school districts, would not be affected by the legislation because it is not a charter school. Wisconsin Virtual School is a program that offers supplemental online courses to school districts, which pay for its courses on a per student basis, said Dawn Nordine, director of Wisconsin Virtual School and instructional technology for Cooperative Educational Service Agency 9.
Most students take Wisconsin Virtual School courses because the courses are not offered by their local school or they’re working on a credit recovery program. The program offers courses only for students in grades 6-12, she said.
Superior school district offers Wisconsin Virtual School courses to at-risk or home schooled students. These students are taking between one and four courses through the school.
Although the Legislature in late January reached a bipartisan compromise that would have allowed the schools to continue operating, Doyle said he was not consulted and would not agree to the plan.
His proposal involves capping the schools’ enrollment, limiting it to current students and their siblings, while state officials continue to study how well students are being served and the effect on public schools and property taxes.
Virtual schools allow students to study from home by taking classes online.
“I’m a little mystified by the need for a cap,” said Kristine Diener, principal of iQ Academy Wisconsin, based in the Waukesha school district but which has students from the Eau Claire area.
“I’m absolutely in favor of the study. I think anyone interested in quality schooling would be. We have no concerns about that.
“We were very encouraged that the legislators from both sides of the aisle had come together and come up with a bipartisan solution. We really did think we had the governor’s support on that, so this 11th-hour addition of a cap is kind of discouraging.”
Diener noted that Michigan requires every student in a traditional school to have some sort of virtual school experience.
“It shows a different attitude,” she said. “It seems a shame to me that we might be stepping backward into the last century and end up being behind so many other states when we really have a good head start on many states in terms of having quality programs available.”
The Grantsburg Virtual School opened last fall and has only about 200 students. Principal Joni Burgin said it would not be able to stay open if enrollment were capped.
“We’re hearing that the governor will not sign anything that does not have a cap in it,” Burgin said. “We’re resigning ourselves that there needs to be a cap.”
The Republican-controlled state Assembly passed an amended version of its bill Friday to include a cap at 1 percent of the student body in Wisconsin.
The amendment was a compromise offered by Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon) and includes the audit of virtual schools that Doyle also requested.
The cap would allow the virtual school student body to grow to 8,700, 1 percent of Wisconsin students, a number that would grow or drop as Wisconsin’s student population changes.
Earlier in February the state Senate passed its version of a virtual school bill that would freeze virtual school enrollment for two years at the current enrollment of 3,200. After the two year freeze virtual school enrollment would be allowed to climb to 4,500 students by 2014.
In a letter to Doyle, Burgin noted that virtual schools serve students who otherwise would struggle and could drop out.
“For struggling students, traditional high schools are like fitting a square peg into a round hole,” Burgin wrote.
Rose Fernandez, a Waukesha-area parent with four children in virtual schools and president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, hoped legislators would put aside partisanship and see the “value and contribution that this different way of public schooling makes for so many kids who just really need it.”
“Personally, it’s been a wonderful way of learning for our family,” Fernandez said.
Taxpayers do not pay more for virtual school support than for traditional schools, Fernandez said, yet virtual schools serve only about three-tenths of 1 percent of Wisconsin children in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It will always be a complement (to traditional public school education), just a small piece,” Fernandez said.
“We’re just asking that these onerous caps not be put into place. It’s just a deplorable way to handle students coming to public schools and asking for an education. I can’t imagine how (caps) would be administered. Why should Wisconsin public schools be a lottery?”
About 1,100 virtual school parents, students and educators rallied at the Capitol in Madison in January, including many from the Eau Claire area, Fernandez said.
“They are committed to this and willing to spend a day making sure they were being heard,” she said.
The group demonstrated Monday at a Senate Democrats fund raiser in Milwaukee in support of the Assembly’s bill.
The Senate reviewed the Assembly version of the virtual school bill and referred it Monday to the education committee, which has not yet set a time to take up the legislation.
Daily Telegram staff writer Anna Kurth contributed to this story.
— Copyright © 2008, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services