Students enrolling in virtual schools could lose the support system they need to ensure academic success if a bill to expand virtual school access gains final passage before the legislative session ends, according to the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB).
AASB Executive Director Sally Smith said on Tuesday removing those supports would not be good for students, citing recent research that students are struggling academically in online environments without those supports.
“Our problem with this [bill] is the abysmal track record of virtual schools serving students across the country,” Smith added. There is plenty of research to support Smith’s conclusion.
In addition, Smith said, because Alabama’s law was passed just last year, it is premature to change the bill until it is actually implemented. The current law requires every school district in Alabama to be ready to offer students a fully-online pathway to obtain an Alabama high school diploma before the start of the 2016-2017 school year.
The AASB shaped last year’s law, having convened a group of educators and policymakers to study how to best implement virtual schools and being careful to make certain local school officials would be responsible for providing the support that students need in a virtual environment.
The AASB’s legislative liaison said Alabama’s current law was “among the first in the nation to link virtual school opportunities with local school system supports, guidance and accountability”.
Support, guidance, and accountability are what research has shown are among the components missing in virtual schools, resulting in low academic performance and completion rates.
The current law allows school districts to provide the courses needed to obtain a diploma, in grades nine through 12 in one of four ways: (1) offer virtual schooling using their own teachers, (2) offer online courses through the statewide ACCESS program, (3) contract with an online vendor such as Edgenuity, K12, Inc., or Pearson’s Connections Academy, or (4) contract with any other Alabama school district who is offering an online diploma.
Under the current law, the school district where the student resides must provide the support necessary for the student regardless of the online option used by the student. And the school district where the student resides counts the student as enrolled, receiving whatever state and federal funding is attached to the student. The district can then pay the online school provider for the cost of providing the academic online program while the district where the student resides can use the remaining funding for those support services.
Leaving responsibility for oversight of the student closer to where the student resides is the key to ensuring students don’t fall through the cracks, Smith said.
SB229, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), removes the requirement for a student to first enroll in the district where he or she resides before having access to an online diploma.
The stated purpose of SB229 is to clarify how funding is distributed and which school district gets to count the virtual school student in their enrollment numbers.
The bill initially provided for an 83/17 split in state funding for the student, with 83% of state and federal funding going to the district providing the online school and 17% remaining in the district where the student resides.
That House committee version is the one that will be considered by the House and that 83/17 split has been removed, giving full state and federal funding to the district providing the online school.
That means regardless of the physical distance from the student, the district offering the online schooling must provide the online student the full spectrum of services, including state testing and special education services if the student is eligible. The bill spells out what isn’t required, including transportation.
A student could be eligible to participate in extracurricular activities either at the online school where the student is enrolled or in the district where the student resides, depending upon inter-district transfer policies in each of the districts. Distance could prove to be a barrier to participation if students enroll in an online school far from where they live.
Smith believes that a law allowing students to circumvent the local school district, and thus the local supports, would then create an environment that could allow an online vendor to contract with a limited number of school districts in Alabama and then recruit students wishing to enroll in an online school to those few school districts.
And although providing support services to students living far from the online school could prove difficult, Athens City Schools Superintendent Trey Holladay believes his school district is being successful in doing just that.
Holladay told the Decatur Daily in February that his system has been actively recruiting home-school and private-school students to its virtual program and some of those students were from as far away as Birmingham and Baldwin County. Holladay said teams of teachers from Athens have traveled to Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham to meet with students enrolled in the virtual program to provide the full education experience.
In an interview on Tuesday evening, Holladay said that though there was some confusion over whether his school district would be able to count those faraway students in his enrollment numbers, after clarifying that his district was providing a full education to those students, including special education and testing for those students, the ALSDE did agree the students should be counted in Athens City Schools’ enrollment numbers.
According to Holladay, response has been so great to Athens Renaissance School for students who want the virtual school experience, he has slowed expansion and is seeking more partnerships with school districts across the Tennessee Valley to ensure the program remains the high-quality program he and his board of education expect it to be.
While Holladay first supported SB229, he now opposes it.
The National Education Policy Center’s 2016 Virtual School Report agreed that students in virtual schools that were locally-run generally performed better than those run by large for-profit providers.
While Holladay’s district may be doing it right and providing all supports necessary, not all virtual schools are providing those supports and that’s what worries Smith.
According to the AASB, a serious problem could arise when the district providing virtual schooling receive state funding for the initial enrollment of the student, but if the student begins to struggle, the student is then sent back into the local school system for the rest of the school year. If the district providing the virtual school has already counted the student as enrolled, the local school system receives no funding for that student the following year.
[To further confuse matters, funding for enrollment in Alabama’s public schools is provided based on the previous year’s enrollment, also called Average Daily Membership, or ADM, numbers. If the student was enrolled in the district where he or she resides the year before, the funding is there for the current year, but not the following year.]
The virtual school landscape is still working itself out, and though some virtual schools appear to offer a comparable education to brick-and-mortar schools, the additional reading below cites research from even those groups who initially were strong supporters showing virtual schools, particularly virtual charter schools, are not meeting initial expectations of serving students in non-traditional education environments.
Communications from both the AASB and the Alabama State Department of Education show how surprised both entities have been at how this bill has endured throughout the session. Both indicate they believed SB229 had little chance to make it through each successive gateway, yet it may arrive on the House floor as early as Thursday to be considered for final passage.
Asked why the bill continue to be resurrected, Smith said that SB229 is a vendor-driven bill, and it is “easier for online vendors to sell their programs to legislators than to sell it to all of the school districts,” referring to the current law’s requirement for the local school district to be involved.
As State’s First Virtual School Grows, So Do Concerns, October 1, 2015, LearningLab
Tennessee bill would close some virtual schools, January 22, 2016, The Tennessean
Walton Family Foundation: We Must Rethink Online Learning, January 26, 2016, Education Week
Online Charter Schools Tested by Setbacks and Self-Inflicted Blows, February 22, 2016, NBC News
Education leaders question why virtual school in Tennessee remains open, March 18, 2016, WPSD Local 6 News
Expert: For-profit virtual schools “terrible” at educating our children, April 20, 2016, Michigan Public Radio
Virtual Schools Report 2016, March 2016, The National Education Policy Center: This was the fourth in an annual series looking at virtual schools. This is the study covered in the previous Michigan Radio interview.
The study’s authors find that performance of virtual school students lags behind those enrolled in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, and that district-operated schools that are smaller (e.g., not statewide) are more likely to perform better. From the study’s conclusions:
The rapid expansion of virtual schools and blended schools is remarkable given the consistently negative findings regarding student and school performance. The advocates of fulltime virtual schools and blended schools remain several years ahead of policymakers and researchers, and new opportunities are being defined and developed largely by for-profit entities accountable to stockholders rather than to any public constituency.
Our findings indicate that district operated virtual schools and blended schools, as well as virtual schools and blended schools operated by nonprofit EMOs, or no EMO at all, are more likely to perform better. They are much smaller, and they have substantially lower teacher to student ratios. More research is needed to understand the characteristics of the successful outliers or exceptions. Contrary to the overwhelmingly negative evidence on the performance of current virtual schools and blended schools, we remain optimistic that full-time virtual schooling can work and hope that more research and more reasoned policymaking can revise and strengthen regulations that steer the operation and growth of full-time virtual schools and blended schools. Further expansion in this sector should be contingent on school performance.
Policymakers should slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.