Cap on Virtual Schools Jeopardizes Wisconsin’s Eligibility for Federal Education Funds

Online public charter schools (or virtual schools) are charter schools under contract with a school board in which all or a portion of the instruction is provided through means of the Internet, and the pupils enrolled in and instructional staff employed by the school are geographically remote from each other. 

Virtual schools have become an incredibly popular option throughout the country. In Wisconsin, thousands of families from Green Bay to Lancaster, from Racine to Rhinelander and other communities in every county in the state, have chosen to enroll their children in these unique and innovative public schools. School districts across Wisconsin (including those in Grantsburg, Appleton, Monroe, Fredonia, Waukesha and McFarland) currently offer or are exploring this option.

But in Wisconsin, even though online public charter schools are successful and embraced by parents, teachers and administrators alike, access to this innovation is rationed.

Beginning this year, the total number of students attending virtual charter schools through Wisconsin’s Open Enrollment Program is capped at 5,250. Siblings of students already enrolled in online public charter schools are not included in this enrollment cap and are guaranteed opportunities to enroll.

The arbitrary cap was imposed last year as a bipartisan compromise was hammered out that saved virtual schools. The legislation was needed after a court decision in a WEAC-brought lawsuit threatened to shut down these schools and lock out thousands of Wisconsin students who currently choose this public school option.

Also, as a component of that compromise, the State is conducting a financial and performance evaluation audit of virtual charter schools.  The results were expected months ago but should be released soon. Proponents of virtual schools readily accepted the audit provision of the compromise (and are eager to see the results) because they know, first-hand, that these schools work.

There is no surer measure of their success than the actions of Wisconsin families. In April, the State Department of Public Instruction told virtual schools across the state that the number of applicants for the 2009-10 school year indeed exceeded the 5,250 enrollment cap (enrollment for the previous year was approximately 3,500).
Disgustingly, as a result of the enrollment cap, more than 1,000 Wisconsin school children were put on a waiting list for the public school of their choice. Over the next few months, many families shied away from playing the waiting game and decided against this option for now. The waiting list was exhausted this year, but it already has had an impact on hundreds of families. Moreover, the cap will certainly be hit again next year and it is highly likely students will be locked out of the public charter school of their choice.

Wisconsin law is standing in the virtual schoolhouse door, denying students entry. It’s abhorrent.
Now, as if the mere existence of a lock out were not bad enough, the limitation on these charter schools could jeopardize Wisconsin’s eligibility for perhaps one hundred million dollars in federal education aid.

As a part of the most recent federal stimulus package, $4.3 billion was provided for the Race to the Top competitive grants. However, Wisconsin’s eligibility for these funds is in question.

Consider comments within this article from the Associated Press, published in May:

States will hurt their chance to compete for millions of federal stimulus dollars if they fail to embrace innovations like charter schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday.

Dunan was responding to a question about Tennessee, where Democratic state lawmakers have blocked an effort to let more kids into charter schools.

“States like that would not be helping their chances, I can say that,” Duncan told The Associated Press during a visit to a high school in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va.

President Barack Obama wants to expand the number of charter schools, a daunting task in many states with laws that limit their numbers. The president argues that charter schools are creating many innovations in education today.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of local school boards, often free from the constraints of union contracts in traditional schools. As a result, they are hotly opposed by teachers and other critics who say they drain money and talent from other public schools.

But the federal stimulus law gives Obama a powerful incentive to push the expansion of charter schools. The law set up a $5 billion fund to reward states and school districts that adopt innovations the administration supports. The fund is part of $100 billion for education over the next two years.

“We want to reward those states that are willing to lead the country where we need to go and are willing to push this reform agenda very, very hard,” Duncan told the AP.

“There are a number of states that are leading this effort, and we want to invest a huge amount of money into them, a minimum of $100 million, probably north of that,” he said.

“And the states that don’t have the stomach or the political will, unfortunately, they’re going to lose out,” Duncan said.

You can see the Department of Education’s proposed rules here.

The education press in Wisconsin has already pointed out that Wisconsin’s prohibition on the use of student achievement in teacher evaluations jeopardizes our state’s ability to procure Race to the Top funds. But unreported, so far, is the fact that the enrollment cap on virtual schools also could serve as a deal breaker. In Madison, legislation has been proposed to eliminate the restriction on teacher evaluations, but those efforts may be moot if a similar effort to remove the cap on virtual school enrollment is not successful.

On page 32 section D(2) of the proposed rules one prominent selection criteria for up to $100 million in Race to the Top funding is“The extent to which the State has a charter school law that does not prohibit or effectively inhibit increasing the number of charter schools in the State (as measured by the percentage of total schools in the State that are allowed to be charter schools) or otherwise restrict student enrollment in charter schools.”
The cap on online public charter school enrollment is clearly a restriction on student enrollment in charter schools, and also serves as a de-facto cap on the number of public virtual charter schools that can operate here.

If the cap remains in place, the Race to the Top funding may go elsewhere. 

Depending on one’s support of public school options like charter schools, the withholding of federal funds can be seen as either coercive or an incentive. But when the end goal is improved academic performance for all Wisconsin students, and the dollars at stake are so significant, attention must be paid. 

Wisconsin must eliminate the cap on online public charter school enrollment or risk losing out on  funds that could be used to improve education throughout Wisconsin, and most specifically in the areas that need the most help. 

We will continue to monitor this issue as things develop this fall.

By Brian Fraley
MacIver Institute Perspective