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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008

Dueling Virtual School Bills

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Should taxpayers foot the bill for a public school system that doesn’t require its teachers to hold a license, can accept students from other states and boosts the revenue of an out-of-state corporation? That could happen if Assembly Republicans and virtual school advocates get their way. State Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon), chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and Rep. Daniel LeMahieu (R-Cascade) are sponsoring a bill that would allow virtual schools— schools in which the bulk of the curriculum is taught online, with little input from state-certified teachers—to be public charter schools with little accountability.

The bill was developed in response to a recent appellate court ruling that questioned whether the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), created as a charter school by the Northern Ozaukee School District, adheres to state laws regarding publicly funded charter schools. The court ruled that it doesn’t, because parents provide the majority of the teaching, along with materials provided by K12 Inc., a private corporation based in Virginia; teachers only have about four hours of contact with each student per month. What’s more, the “district” is only nominally located in Fredonia, with staff and students located outside of the district.

Because the school had been launched as a charter school, it received $6,000 per pupil from the state. Yet the curriculum provided by K12 Inc. only costs about $1,200 per year, according to state Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), a critic of the system as it’s run now. K12 has received about $5 million from Wisconsin taxpayers for its partnership with WIVA. It was founded by William Bennett, a conservative author and pundit who served as the secretary of education under President Reagan and as the drug czar under the first President Bush. What’s more, One Wisconsin Now, an independent advocacy organization, working with data from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, reported that Davis, one of the sponsors of the new legislation, received $500 from K12’s top staffers just before the November 2006 election.

Lehman, chair of the state Senate Education Committee, has offered his own online school bill. Instead of removing state oversight, Lehman has set standards for how these schools can legally operate. Rather than allow non-certified teachers to provide instruction, Lehman’s bill requires that state-certified teachers have two hours of contact with students per day for kids in grades K-8, and 30 minutes of teacher-student contact in high school. Lehman has indicated that this requirement will alleviate the parent’s responsibility to provide what amounts to full-time instruction, and therefore allow more children—kids whose primary caretaker works outside of the home—to be able to attend a virtual school.

Lehman has also dropped the funding of virtual schools to 50% of what schools in the open enrollment program currently receive from the state. Lehman has argued that virtual schools don’t have to pay for busing, supporting a school building, meal costs and other expenses, and therefore don’t require the same level of funding.

Lehman’s bill would also allow the Department of Public Instruction to develop its own online curriculum, so that virtual school districts won’t be required to partner with private corporations such as K12 to access the curriculum.

The dueling bills will be debated this week in the Senate and Assembly committees. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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