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Virtual School Enrollment Cap Stifles Choice

Comments | Posted in mi perspectives | By MacIver Institute | Posted January 24, 2011 11:16 AM

Today marks the beginning of School Choice Week.

Well, members of the Wisconsin legislature have several important choices ahead of them as they look at the educational landscape in this state.

The temptation is to sweep our state’s educational problems under the rug with one heck of a broom for an excuse, “there is no money.”

To give in to that temptation would be wrong and there are steps the legislature can take to restore educational innovation and improve educational access without breaking the bank.

One of the steps would be to eliminate the cap on online public charter school enrollment.  The cap is one of the most shameful educational policy holdovers from the Governor Jim Doyle era, and it needs to be repealed.

Online public charter school schools, popularly known as virtual schools, are just what they sound like. The charter schools are set up to teach students their coursework over the Internet by public school teachers. The classes are taught by public school teachers. The difference between a virtual school and a traditional brick-and-mortar school is that everything is done online, allowing more flexibility for parents and students.

Remote teaching as an educational alternative is not a completely new concept in Wisconsin. In the 1930s, public radio launched “Wisconsin School of the Air” to teach grades 6 through 8 music and current events in rural schools in Dane County. By 1960, over 289,000 students were using the programs statewide before the program began to fade away.

Virtual schools have also proven popular. An audit of the virtual school program last year showed 94% parent satisfaction with virtual schools and 93% of teachers were satisfied with teaching online courses.

Virtual schools also demonstrated they can perform academically. The audit showed virtual school students surpassed their peers in brick-and-mortar schools in reading at every grade level.

In Wisconsin, parents and students and parents can sign up for the virtual school of their choice during the state’s open enrollment period in February. However, there is a catch.

In 2008, the total enrollment in Wisconsin’s virtual schools was capped at 5,250 students, pending the outcome of last year’s audit. Students already enrolled in the virtual schools are automatically included, as well as their siblings. The remaining spots are divvied up by lottery with the remaining students put on a waiting list. The lottery selection is for the individual student rather than the family, so Wisconsin’s educational lottery could mean one sibling wins and another loses.

The cap number was not based on the number of openings at the virtual schools but was the result of a compromise between Governor Doyle and the legislature. WEAC, the state’s largest teachers union, sued claiming the virtual schools were in violation of Wisconsin’s charter school law. When it appeared WEAC would be successful in shutting down the virtual schools, the legislature passed a law changing the charter school law allowing for the continued operation of the virtual schools. The governor insisted on the enrollment cap pending completion of the study before he would sign the bill.

Last year more than 7,000 students were signed up to attend one of the state's 14 virtual charter schools, meaning 1,756 students were placed on a waiting list. Parents of students on the waiting list have to cross their fingers each year that enough other students enrolled in the virtual schools and their parents will change their minds, opening up enough spots for the students on the waiting list whose parents don’t simply give up and try to make other educational arrangements, such as homeschooling. For many parents on the waiting list, the uncertainty of where their children would attend school in the fall lasted well into the summer even though they applied back in February.

It is not as if there was not enough room for the students in the virtual schools. The virtual schools also allow teachers to teach more students, one of the reasons WEAC fears the expansion of the virtual schools, even though the schools use public school teachers. Despite being able to reach more students, the audit of the virtual schools showed 95% of students said they were satisfied with the availability of their teachers and 97% were satisfied with the amount of contact with their teachers.

The cap was completely arbitrary, an unnecessary burden on parents seeking educational alternatives that are best suited for their children’s educational needs. The results of the audit are clear, demonstrating that virtual schools are an effective educational alternative for some families. Instead of condemning more families to face a summer of uncertainty, we can open up the schoolhouse doors to all of these families by lifting the enrollment cap.

It would be one significant move to increase school choice options for Wisconsin families.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute