No Justification for Virtual School Lockout

The open enrollment period for Wisconsin’s public schools just ended. Thousands of parents across Wisconsin, when looking at the educational challenges facing their children, just made the choice to apply to send their children to public schools outside their local school district. Wisconsin’s charter school and open enrollment laws are powerful tools that empower parents to search for the best possible public education option for their kids.

One option for Wisconsin’s school children and parents is online public charter schools, otherwise known as virtual schools. These schools offer educational opportunities for children from all backgrounds who, for a variety of reasons, need a choice beyond the traditional brick and mortar schools. These charter schools are public schools with public school teachers, but the courses and instruction are online.

Two years ago, this educational option was in danger. A lawsuit by the Wisconsin Education Association Council to shut down the Wisconsin Virtual Academy in the Northern Ozaukee School District nearly succeeded, almost taking the rest of the state’s virtual schools with it. Fortunately the legislature intervened, a compromise was made, and virtual schools were allowed to remain open.

The compromise had one very unfortunate aspect. State-wide total enrollment in these online charter schools was capped at 5,250 students (out of the more than 850,000 public school students in Wisconsin) The cap was insisted upon by Governor Jim Doyle and was meant to serve as a speed bump for these schools, while a study was conducted to see if virtual schools were actually meeting the students’ needs.

Last year enrollment applications exceeded the cap and the state department of instruction conducted a lottery to determine which new applicants could be accepted at the virtual schools. Those students that didn’t win the lottery were put on a waiting list by DPI. As a result, many parents had some children accepted while others were put on the list, dividing families. Many parents who found their children on the list then had to make the decision to cross their fingers and hope for the best or to find other school arrangements for the fall. While the total enrollment in these schools did not reach the cap (many parents decided not to enroll after applying, a common practice in traditional open enrollment across Wisconsin), the cap still impacted hundreds of families throughout the state.

The results of the study, conducted by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau, are now in; and they are indisputable: Wisconsin’s virtual schools are successful.

Students enrolled in virtual schools exceeded their brick and mortar counterparts in reading at every grade level and exceeded the math scores for four out of the seven levels tested. Over 94 percent of parents are satisfied with their child’s virtual charter school.  A number that should make WEAC happy, 93 percent of virtual school teachers are satisfied with teaching online courses. Students are also satisfied with the contact with their teachers, with 97 percent of high school students saying they were satisfied or very satisfied. Contrary to the fears expressed by the schools’ detractors the children in these public charter schools are well socialized and the teachers express a high degree of satisfaction with their ability to interact with their students.

Moreover, Virtual schools have proved to be a good bargain for the taxpayers. Virtual schools receive $6,077 per pupil compared to the average expense of $11,397 per pupil in traditional schools.

Yet, WEAC complained in a press release that charter virtual schools, because of their success, result in different school districts competing for students to get the state funding. What WEAC does not say is that for each student leaving their district under open enrollment, the district still receives over $3,000. WEAC complained about the amount of money spent on private contractors by the virtual schools. What they don’t mention is that 93 percent of the funding is spent on teachers and curriculum, and that traditional brick and mortar schools also spend money on private companies (book publishers, transportation companies, utility companies, etc.)

WEAC complained only 3 percent of virtual charter school students are special needs students. (They artifically hinder enrollment in these schools and then they complain about who enrolls in these schools?) However, WEAC ignores the fact that when it comes to children with special needs, 77 percent of parents were more satisfied with the services in virtual schools and 20 percent were equally satisfied.

Clearly the way to better serve even more students, including those with special needs, is to lift the enrollment caps on virtual charter schools.

What is interesting is what WEAC did not say.  They could not say that virtual charter schools are being taught by unqualified teachers because the teachers are union teachers.  They could not say virtual schools are not teaching the children because the test results speak for themselves.

We know the worth of offering the option of virtual public charter schools, and we have the legislative audit results to back it up.

Maintaining the caps will only result in parents facing uncertainty about their children’s educational futures and ultimately prevent some parents from choosing an educational option that could truly benefit their children.

The questions have been answered. The doubters demanded an official audit before these schools would be allowed to grow. The results of that nonpartisan audit are in.

The debate has been settled. These schools work.

It’s time to lift the enrollment cap.

By James Wigderson
Special Perspective for the MacIver Institute