Wisconsin Virtual Schools Generate Mixed Results

An unflattering picture is being painted upon the rise of virtual charter schools in Wisconsin as new accountability standards hold them to the same expectations as regular public schools. Their numbers are on the rise partly due to legislation that lengthened the period of time parents have to consider enrollment options, but this has not stopped critics from blasting online charters as cash cows due to high attrition rates.

As Eric Oliver of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, according to 2012-’13 report cards for schools released this fall by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 50% of the children in virtual schools were attending one that was not meeting performance expectations, largely because of poor test results and high dropout rates.

The data does not represent a comprehensive sample — the state had 28 virtual charter schools last year that enrolled 6,663 students, but only eight serving a total of 4,705 students received state report cards through Wisconsin’s new accountability system. According to DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper, of those eight, four met or exceeded expectations.

The other 20 did not receive ratings because they were either less than three years old, had fewer than 20 students or did not educate students tested by the state exam.

For students who have struggled in traditional schools and remain prone to dropping out, from the school supporters’ point of view, online schools can be their last resort. Alternatively, the schools are best for those learn independently or are engaged in time-consuming outside activities.

“We provide a service that helps some students find a place to fit,” Young said. “I’m constantly amazed at how well we can adapt and get these kids to be successful just because they are not constrained to a brick-and-mortar school.”

Additionally, Young believes charter schools have to stop being judged as a whole and instead should be looked at individually.

From the critics’ viewpoint, virtual schools generate profits  for operators who benefit from per-pupil charter school funding without having to pay the same overhead costs as traditional brick-and-mortar schools. They point to high attrition rates as being a main concern. The spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, said the report cards provide important accountability for the schools.

“(The low rankings) show that the state needs to take a step back and look at the schools that currently exist,” Christina said. “Is it the best thing for a kindergartner to go to a school without any interaction with her teacher?”

Virtual education is a hot-button issue nationwide, with the largest for-profit operator of the schools, K12 Inc., coming under pressure in recent years for its schools’ low performance. K12 operates Wisconsin’s largest virtual school, Wisconsin Virtual Academy, authorized by the McFarland School District.