Part 2 of 3
• Coming Tuesday:
Lawmakers tighten rules for online schools
WENATCHEE — Competition from online schools cost North Central Washington districts nearly $830,000 last year.
For every student who transfers out to join an online school full time, about $5,000 in state education money transfers out with them.
Here’s how it works: An online teaching firm, such as Insight or Washington Virtual Academy, contracts with a school district to provide its curriculum, support and sometimes its teachers. When a student enrolls in the program, they transfer school districts.
As state funding follows the student to the new district, the online school company also gets a cut. How much depends on the contract.
Statewide, 248 districts lost more than 6,600 full-time students and more than $33 million to online schools in 2008, according to a state report released last month. Nineteen districts gained about 7,100 students, worth $35.5 million.
The 21 school districts in NCW lost about 165 full-time students, or about $828,000. Considering the size of school district budgets, the problem is just enough to raise an eyebrow. Most school districts in the region lost less than 2 percent of their students to online schools in 2008.
Smaller school districts tend to hurt most, because they have fewer students to lose. Two students transferred out of Mansfield schools in 2008, which is more than 2 percent of its 80 students. At Eastmont, about 20 of the district’s 5,482 students joined online schools, which is less than half a percent.
The enrollment war is troublesome for districts trying to plan their yearly budgets. Methow Valley School District started the year with a $60,000 deficit because 15 homeschool families unexpectedly transferred out, said Superintendent Mark Wenzel.
The school district offered its homeschool students local support and oversight from teachers, plus a $300 stipend for curriculum materials. An online provider out-bid the district with a $2,200 a year stipend. About half of Methow Valley’s homeschool population transferred out. Since then, about five or six families came back to the district because they missed the local support, Wenzel said.
The online school trend is also catching on among traditional students at the 550-student district, Wenzel said. About 30 high school students are taking online classes, from Japanese to Advanced Placement psychology.
“Where online schools are fundamentally changing the nature of public education is it opens up a whole new world of curriculum,” Wenzel said. “It’s tough to balance that with finances.”
Wenzel said the school district is hoping for a regional solution. Instead of 20 school districts competing with each other, Wenzel said he supports the idea of a regional online program.
“We’re all small school districts faced with the same issues and it makes sense for us to work together and look for a regional approach so we’re not competing with each other for those online students but working together.”
Cascade School District already lost 250 students in the last six years to Leavenworth’s expensive housing prices. Last year, online schools cost the district 17 more students — about 1.3 percent of its population — worth about $65,000 in state funding.
“I think it’s an open market, partially that’s what capitalism is about,” said Superintendent Rob Clark. “People experiment with online schools just like they do homeschooling and private schools. We have competition like we haven’t faced before.”
More students left Wenatchee schools than any other district in the area, but overall the impact isn’t much. Those 55 students who left this year for online schools represent less than a percent of the 7,700 student body. Wenatchee gained 250 students because its other programs — Valley Academy for homeschool students, WestSide High School, dual language and the arts.
“My job as a superintendent is to make sure that we’re listening to the voice of parents and students and do what we can within the school district to meet those needs,” said Wenatchee Superintendent Brian Flones. “If we can’t do it, I have no problem with people looking at other alternatives.”
Local school districts call Pete Phillips weekly for advice on how to prepare for the growing popularity of online learning. He is the technology director at the North Central Education Service District, a regional support center for districts.
“It’s definitely on the front burner for all of them as they look at all issues,” Phillips said. “The No. 1 driver is the fear factor of losing enrollment to online schools. That fear is coupled with what’s the best way to teach students while trying to satisfy parent and student requests.”
Phillips said districts have options:
• Contract with a national online company, such as K12, Insight or Advanced Academics, so students can take classes online without transferring out. Still, those outside companies take a cut, or sometimes all, of the public education money for that student.
• Create an in-house online academy, developed and taught by local teachers.
• Offer online classes through the state’s online course database, created this year by the new department of digital learning. Districts pay a per-course fee for every student.
• Create a policy that creates an approval process for students who want to transfer out to take online courses. By law, districts are required to set up some sort of policy regarding online learning by August. A state model policy was published online earlier this month at digitallearning.k12.wa.us.
The NCESD is talking about hosting a regional online school, where local students can take online classes without leaving the school district, Phillips said. He envisions local educators teaching online classes for a period or two a day from their regular classrooms.
“We’re in the very infancy of those talks,” he said. “At first blush it would be modeled after what online providers are already doing statewide, but we would try to keep that locally.”