Comptroller Report Analyzes Tennessee’s Virtual Schools

(Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam, Creative Commons)

Almost five years after a Tennessee law allowed school districts to establish full-time virtual schools, a state comptroller report examined the ways these institutions are funded, finding a broad range of finances and student body makeup.

The report concluded that in comparison with traditional schools with pre-defined budgets and full-time students, Tennessee’s virtual schools differ significantly in terms of funding, size and full- and part-time enrollment of students and employees, reports News Channel 9.

For instance, in the 2015-16 academic year, the Bradley County Virtual school serves 71 full-time students in grades 3-12. Only three of them do not originate from within the district. The school employs 11 part-time teachers, nine of whom are also teaching full-time in other schools in the area, and their remuneration is $20 an hour.

The Hamilton County Virtual School (HCVS) serves grades K-12. Currently, it has 31 full-time students and 50 part-time students. Only two of the full-time students come from other districts, and HCVS has no full-time teachers. It employs 15 part-time educators, all of whom work full-time at other schools in the county.  The compensation of teachers at HCVS is a rate of $125, plus benefits, per pupil, per quarter, per course.

According to The Chattanoogan, since 2011, nine virtual schools have been operating in Tennessee. They served about 0.21 percent of the total K-12 enrollment in 2014-15. The Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability surveyed the virtual schools last year to identify how they operate, and the ways school districts have distributed the funds allocated to them.

The report released last week concluded that the majority of the virtual schools have small enrollments compared to their school district’s enrollment. The only one exception is the Union County’s Tennessee Virtual Academy: in 2014-15, virtual school students made up 33 percent of the total district’s enrollment.

The budget for virtual schools is mostly dependent on student enrollment, including the number of students and whether they attend classes full-or part-time. The home district of each student also counts. For example, several virtual schools charge fees for part-time pupils living outside the school district in which the school operates.

School districts are free to choose whether to manage their virtual schools or contracts for services with non-profit or for-profit organizations. Only two of the districts, Robertson and Union Counties, confirmed agreements with for-profit providers to operate their virtual schools.

The report also revealed some important data about the academic performance of Tennessee’s virtual schools.  As Melanie Balakit of The Tennessean writes, the pupils’ academic growth scores are lower for virtual schools than from the school districts that established them. The performance might be due to the number of students admitted to virtual schools for a short time period, and that enrollment changes can result in unsatisfactory academic outcomes.

As per the law, if virtual schools’ students perform significantly below expectations for any three consecutive years, Tennessee’s Commissioner for Education may decide to limit or even suspend students’ enrollment.

The Comptroller’s report also confirmed there was only one struggling virtual school – the TNVA. Although it serves the largest number of students in Tennessee, the school faced closure in 2015.

Earlier in March this year, a bill that would have prevented school districts from contracting virtual schools services with for-profit entities failed in a state House subcommittee.