Virtual Charter Schools: Getting a public education without the ‘meddlesome and fickle’ public

The Virtual Charter Movement: Connections Academy and the Wisconsin Virtual Academy Charter School (WIVA)

     For young Jaime, Tori and Hope Leonard, they wake up at 6:30 a.m. and by 7:30 they get dressed and they are - virtually - in school, without ever leaving home.  Like all children who are home- schooled, the two sisters don’t even have to leave their house.  But unlike home-schooled children, the Leonards are actually enrolled in a public school — a virtual charter school that is part of the Wisconsin, Appleton Area School District about 100 miles away.  Because her children are enrolled in Wisconsin Connections Academy, Leonard pays nothing, the school is public.  State taxpayers provide about $5,745 to the Appleton School District for each of her daughters. That’s the amount all school districts receive for students who live in another district and register through the state’s open- enrollment option.

     According to Principal Nicole Schweitzer about $3,600 of the money the school receives for each student goes to Connections Academy, a for-profit company under contract with the district (Wisconsin Charter Schools Association website). 

Connections Academy, which has virtual for-profit charter schools in 15 states, also provides the curriculum it adapts to meet standards, along with computers, technical support, textbooks and related materials for the 465 kindergarten through eighth- grade students enrolled in the Wisconsin school (Wisconsin Charter Schools Association website).  Connections Academy also provides professional development for their teachers as well as other support services— the other $2,145 remains with the district, and is used to pay the salaries of the school’s state-licensed teachers and other services provided to students, she said (Wisconsin Charter Schools Association website).    However, unlike home-schooled students, those enrolled in the state’s virtual charter schools must meet curriculum standards established by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and take its Wisconsin State Knowledge and Concepts exams.  And as we shall explore in a subsequent chapter, this represents a problem for many home school parents.

     Connections Academy is careful to point out that it is not a homeschooling program nor, it claims, does it provide online learning or training.  However, the distinction is without difference.   According to Connections Academy, they provide virtual schools.  At their brochure site for the Academy, Connections Academy defines a virtual school as:

The simplest way to describe a virtual school is that it is a school that doesn’t exist in a traditional building.  Instead, the classes, instruction, interactions, and feedback all occur outside of the traditional classroom setting – often at the student’s home. 

Connections Academy is a complete public school, accredited with a full time staff of teachers and counselors, often working together, whose job it is to focus on teaching and supporting each student individually (Connections Academy website).

     The history of Connections Academy ‘virtual charter’ plan is relatively new to the home schooling movement as well as something virtually unheard of in the public school system, of which it claims it is not a part.  In the spring of 2001, Sylvan Ventures started a separate business unit of their corporation to create a ‘turnkey’ virtual school program.    The result was Connections Academy and the company began operations of its first schools in the fall of 2002.  In September of 2004, Connections Academy was sold to an investor group led by Apollo Management, L.P.   The for-profit company now operates schools under management contracts from charter schools or school districts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.  They also are currently developing charter schools in Washington State, Utah, New Mexico, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina where the company boasts that it uses all certified teachers in its academic programs (Connections Academy website).

In another part of Wisconsin, parent Julie Thompson of Cross Plains, exclaims with enthusiasm:

My daughter has the most wonderful, hardest-working teachers in the world working for her,” says near Madison. Her seventh-grader logs on with software made for virtual schooling.  She goes to a virtual class with a live teacher.  She has lessons assigned for her by a teacher. She does one-on-one work with a teacher. She gets her homework evaluated by a teacher, or she talks on a phone or meets face to face with a teacher (McIlheran 2007).    

      What Julie Thompson is so excited about it is the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), an organization offering a program similar to the Connections Academy.  According to the WIVA website:

Based out of the Northern Ozaukee School District, the Wisconsin Virtual Academy is a public virtual school program that blends innovative new instructional technology with a traditional curriculum for students in grades K-8 all across Wisconsin.

     Currently the Academy is serving approximately 850 K-8 students throughout the state of Wisconsin.  Students living anywhere in Wisconsin may be eligible to attend the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. They offer another program entitled Honors High Online of Wisconsin for grades 9-11 based out of the Northern Ozaukee School District.  The Wisconsin Virtual Academy is a public charter school program and there is no tuition for enrollment. WIVA loans students a computer system and provides all instructional materials for the program. However, students and families are responsible for providing some consumable materials (such as printer ink and paper), and a District Student fee ($30 per child in the 2005-2006 school year). 

The Virtual Charter School and neo-liberal politics

     One of the most recent developments within the charter school movement, is the growth of the virtual charter school, a new but rapidly growing idea and educational reality that seeks to capitalize on state charter school legislation for purposes of obtaining charter school funding at public expense, while offering education on-line at home, at the office or in the gym.  This notion of the virtual charter finds a large and enthusiastic audience within the burgeoning home-schooling community as well as the business community.  So just what is a ‘virtual school’, let alone a ‘virtual charter school’?  According to a new report released by Gene Glass, noted educational scholar and professor at Arizona State University, a ‘virtual school’:

“virtual schooling” can be taken to mean “acts, affordances, and relationships that simulate real schooling,” where “real schooling” is taken to be teachers and students interacting in the same place and at the same time for the purpose of learning things (Glass website, 2009).

     In the past decade this form of computer based mediated activity between teachers and students exploded on the public scene.  With the growth in what is often referred to as ‘online education’, the entire enterprise of education now has become a thriving multi-million dollar business.  In fact, according to Professor Gene Glass, virtual education:

has grown from a novelty to an established mode of education that may provide all or part of formal schooling for nearly one in every 50 students in the US. In a non-random 2007 survey of school districts, as many as three out of every four public K-12 school districts responding reported offering full or partial online courses (ibid).

     In reality, the statistics for online learning, or virtual school growth, are surprisingly dramatic.  According to an article in Technology and Learning, a publication funded by The American Council of Online Learning, as early as 2006,:

38 states have now established state-led online learning programs, policies regulating online learning or both. Enrollments in online courses have increased as much as 50% in some states.  25 states have established state-wide or state-led virtual schools. Michigan now requires high school students to take at least one online course before they graduate.  The Connections Academy—a pioneering virtual school that began serving K–8 students in 2002 and has now expanded to K-11 in 12 states—”combines strong parental involvement of learning at home, the expertise and accountability of public education, and the flexibility of online classes.” Teachers work with their students using a variety of methods including Web-based exchanges, phone conversations, and videoconferencing. Students work on collaborative projects, and the schools even facilitate face-to-face field trips and gatherings for students in the same area—or beyond (Armstrong website, 2007).

( Virtual Learning 2.0  Tech and Learning By Sara Armstrong, November 15, 2007.

     Former Education Secretary William Bennett, under George Bush, Sr., created K12, Inc. backed by the education firm Knowledge Universe, the brainchild of former convicted felon and junk bond seller, Michael Milkin.   Milkin partnered with Bennett to financially start up Bennett’s virtual learning, for profit school business plan which has been quite successful and seems to be growing across the United States by leaps and bounds.  After the creation of his company in 1999, Bennett managed to cut a deal with then Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania to be allowed into the state as an ‘educational business’, winning approval for the company’s first virtual charter school in Norristown, Pennsylvania. This served to establish Bennett’s political connections and subsequent business connections, assuring his ability to manage to secure business relationships with several other states for the idea of virtual learning and virtual charter schools.  He also has his own radio show where he can be heard lambasting public education throughout the week.  And Bennett’s company is not alone.  Literally dozens of such companies have blossomed seemingly overnight.  We will look at them in a later article.

     So then if a virtual school is an on-line learning school, just what is a virtual charter school and how does charter law come into play when offering distant learning education or virtual school education to the nation’s children?  The answer lies not simply with understanding the legal process of chartering the school and thus the virtual schools designation as a charter, but understanding must also lie in examining the direct economic subsidies from the public coffers that accrue to a virtual charter schools and their ‘owners’, or as they would prefer to be called, ‘providers’ (much like employees at Wal-Mart can be considered ‘associates’), as a result of being legally chartered. 

     An example of the controversy over virtual charter schools can be seen in Pennsylvania.  Here the state has debated the financing of virtual charter schools for years.  Concluding that such schools were draining them financially, many school districts in the state filed suit in 2001, portraying online schools as little more than home schooling at taxpayer expense. The districts lost in court, but the debate continues (Dillon website 2008).

 (February 1, 2008 Online Schooling Grows, Setting Off a Debate By SAM DILLON 

      Professor Glass’s study adds to the Pennsylvania controversy:

In some instances, virtual schools that have taken advantage of the charter school legislation in a state are funded exactly as if they were “brick-and-mortar” charter schools. In other places, state support to virtual schools is reduced from that of other types of school (conventional schools or charter schools)  (ibid).

     With financial funding the central issue and charter legality simply the codifier and ‘legal cover’ for what is arguably privatization, Glass goes on to show how the cost of providing virtual education at the K-12 level differs substantially from locality to locality.  Furthermore, he specifies there has been great difficulty in assessing the cost of virtual education for purposes of reimbursing ‘providers’.  According to Glass, legislatures often embarked on virtual school creation with the uncritical assumption the virtual ‘model’ would substantially reduce public educational costs.  Yet as Glass’s report testifies, virtual education providers adamantly insist, and for a reason, that their costs remain at levels near that of expenditures for conventional schools and they vigorously lobby politicians for what they regard as ‘adequate funding’, which in the end really translates into taxpayer subsidies for higher profits. 

     What is most compelling and worthy of examination is the overwhelming evidence that clearly points to the fact that these ‘provider’ financial claims seem grossly overstated.  Glass’s continues:

In 2003, Florida funded two pilot virtual schools —one operated by Connections Academy, a private company headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, and the other by K12 Inc., the McLean, Virginia company, (mentioned above)—at $4,800 per student, only about $700 less than the standard per-pupil expenditure in the state at that time. In 2004, the Pennsylvania Auditor General conducted an audit of each of the state’s virtual charter schools; as a result, virtual schools’ reimbursement was lowered to $7,200 for each full-time student, approximately 75% of the conventional per pupil expenditure. Wisconsin reimburses virtual charter schools at approximately half the rate of conventional brick-and-mortar schools. Recent legislation ensuring the existence of virtual schools in Wisconsin requires an audit of such schools to be completed by December 2009. In 2004, the Idaho Legislature funded the Idaho Virtual Academy, a public virtual school run by K12 Inc., at approximately half the per-pupil expenditure of conventional public schools in the state. However, principals for the K12 Inc. corporation have accused the Idaho legislature of deliberately under funding the Academy due to “…opposition from the establishment.” (Ibid)

     The New York Times article referred to above goes on to observe that in 2007, the Pennsylvania state auditor found several online charters had received reimbursements from students’ home districts that surpassed actual education costs by more than $1 million dollars. Now legislators in the state are considering a bill that would in part standardize the payments at about $5,900 per child, according to Michael Race, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.  California, for example, specifically guards against privateers like K12 Inc. from taking public taxpayer money in the form of profits from charter and virtual schools. By passing oversight legislation the state has enacted a statute that specifically requires that online charter schools be audited to insure that no funds are taken as profits by the providers. The statute also provides that the state has the discretion to adjust the allocation based on the results of such audits (Green, Preston and Mead 2004).

     The opportunity to make huge financial profits off of the growing emergence of virtual charter schools cannot be understated and thus also serves as one argument as to why we see the growth of these for-profit providers.  The fact is, these companies and their investors shrewdly see tremendous financial gains in further disabling public education in favor of ‘choice’ and the virtual charter school is surely the latest vehicle for this political and economic convergence of forces demanding privatization. Furthermore, with many home-schoolers wanting the imprimatur of graduating from a public school without the ‘public’, the virtual charter school offers the convenience of disassociation from having to physically attend public schools while fostering claims the virtual charter schools provide a ‘public education’ as well as innovation to improve TPS.  Caught in a tight embrace with political allies, for-profit companies (like K12, Inc. and many, many others) work assiduously with their political constituencies in the home school community to garner political, community and parental support for their business plans.  This is really their base.

Not all home-schoolers support the idea

     Yet not all homeschoolers and their parents are enthralled with the idea of a virtual charter school.  Why?  The reason lies in the fact that once the virtual charter actually becomes a ‘charter’, it by definition becomes ‘public’, thus not only eligible for public subsidies but also the object of public regulation, even if such regulations might be minimal.  And this means that students of virtual charter schools must pass state standardized tests that meet federal requirements and adopt a publicly approved curriculum. Many conservative homeschoolers would then need to meet public school standards and requirements which is an anathema to many in the home schooling community and is precisely the reason many decided to home school in the first place. 

     Take for example a not so distant article published in the Home Education Magazine, the voice of a large segment of the national home school community, entitled How William Bennett’s Public E-Schools Affect Homeschooling.  In the article, the authors, Larry and Susan Kaseman, are critical of Bennett and his plans, arguing:

Bennett is acting in ways that disregard our interests as homeschoolers and undermine our homeschooling freedoms.

It is important to see Bennett’s actions in the context of the Knowledge Universe (KU), a huge educational enterprise. KU is the brainchild of Michael Milken, the former “junk bond king” who made as much as $500 million annually while dealing in junk bonds. He then served time as a convicted felon in connection with his financial dealings.

According to an article from, September, 2001, KU is designed to make money by selling information over the Internet to people from cradle to grave. It is a network of nearly 50 companies (as of September, 2001), many of them interlocking. It includes a number of companies that provide online curriculums, tutoring, test preparation, testing, and school management for preschoolers through middle schoolers. These companies are amassing a huge data base that includes the names and skill levels of people using their products or services and that can be used by other KU companies (ibid).

     The authors go on to point to K12’s president, William Bennett’s comments regarding virtual charter schools during an interview by Mark Standriff on WSPD radio in Toledo, Ohio, August 16, 2002:

Standriff: What kind of opposition have you folks found?

Bennett: We found opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Some of the homeschooling people have opposed us.

Standriff: Oh really, I would think this would be right in line with their thinking.

Bennett: Well it should be. Frankly, I’m disappointed. I’ve been defending homeschoolers for twenty years. But the principle I’m defending, Mark, is school choice, parental choice. The objection they have is that it shouldn’t be involved in public funding, at all. It shouldn’t be involved with government schools, as they say. But, I’m not prepared to relinquish $400 billion and just say, well never mind, this is not money that I’m entitled to. Parents are paying that money in taxes, they should have an option within the public school system that gives them a chance to educate their children at home, but be publicly accountable as all public schools should be (Kaseman 2002).

  ( Home Education Magazine  November-December 2002 - Articles and Columns
 Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman  How William Bennett’s Public E-Schools Affect Homeschooling

     Disgruntled with what they see as the outright exploitation of the homeschooling community for profit and personal gain, authors Larry and Susan Kaseman go on to cogently point out that:

Homeschoolers are a key to the K12 Inc. enterprise. Milken and Bennett are building on the success of homeschooling. Parents who are not certified teachers have been very successful in educating their children. Homeschooled children are well socialized. Thousands of grown homeschoolers are now successful adults, employees, and college students. Without evidence provided by the success of the modern homeschooling movement, Milken, Bennett, and others would be having a much more difficult time launching their enterprise and recruiting investors and potential participants (ibid).

In fact, conservative opposition to virtual charter schools and companies like K12 Inc. that use them to make a quick buck have also been expressed by the Christian Home Educators of Ohio, Christian Parents Education Fellowship (Findlay, OH), Wisconsin Parents Association, Illinois Christian Home Educators, and the Christian Home Education Association of California, to name a few (ibid).  It seems that the virtual charter school is just ‘too public’ for these conservative theocrats.