Background and Concerns
Several Wisconsin school districts are claiming that homeschoolers who enroll in their district’s virtual charter school can have the district pay some of the costs of their homeschooling and still continue to homeschool much as they have been. One example is Bridges Virtual Academy (BVA) in Merrill. For more information, see "New Version of Public School at Home Undermines Homeschooling in Wisconsin" in WPA Newsletter #112 (June 2012), page 10, reprinted here.
Specific concerns include the following:
• Such programs will be unlikely to deliver the curriculum choices, including religiously based curriculum, and some other features they are claiming to offer.
• These programs appear to be motivated more by money for school districts than by education. They are likely to be challenged on questions of (1) spending taxpayers’ money without adequate accountability, (2) running a public school program without much involvement of certified teachers, and (3) violating the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state.
• If it is determined that such programs are illegal, students may not receive the public school credits and diplomas they were expecting.
• Because these are public school programs, participating families are regulated by the government. Former homeschoolers who enroll will surrender important freedoms. They will be required to have their curriculum reviewed and approved by the school district, report regularly to the school district on their children’s progress, take tests chosen by the state and the local school district, and, overall, comply with public school standards and approaches to education, even if they do not agree with them.
• Such programs are not homeschools. (Homeschooling parents take direct responsibility for their children’s educations and do not turn them over to the public schools.) However, because such programs are public schools which allow students to study at home and therefore some people incorrectly assume they are homeschools, legislation to increase regulation of these programs may also lead to increased regulation of homeschools. In this way, such programs threaten the freedom of all homeschoolers in Wisconsin.
• The DPI has expressed concerns that virtual charter schools such as BVA may allow parents to play too large a role in their children’s education and may not provide enough direct instruction by certified teachers. The DPI has also pointed out that Wisconsin statutes don’t permit school districts to make payments to parents.
As WPA predicted, what the BVA promised on its website and in conversations with homeschoolers was more than the Wisconsin statutes allow. In fact, the DPI said as much in a letter it sent to local public school district administrators on June 15, 2012. Under Wisconsin’s open records law, WPA was able to get a copy of this letter. See Download DPI Educ Options Letter Charter School Standards 6:15:2012.
In this letter, the DPI expressed concern about virtual charter schools “delegating to parents the responsibilities of instructional staff specified in Wis. Stats 118.40 (8) (c),” including allowing parents to plan instruction, diagnose learning needs, and conduct classroom activities, all without direction from the school’s staff, and parents’ testing and grading students and reporting the results to the school staff. In other words, the DPI is concerned about parents of virtual charter school students doing what homeschooling parents do on a regular basis.
The DPI also expressed concern about “designating a school as a virtual charter school as a way to draw home-schooled [sic] students into the open-enrollment program while, for all practical purposes, the student continues to attend a home-school [sic] directed and operated by the parent with minimal or no involvement of instructional staff. This includes making direct payments to parents or reimbursing parents for purchasing an online curriculum, electronic devices, and books.” In other words, the DPI is concerned about programs such as BVA in Merrill.
The DPI letter cited statutes requiring that all public school students be taught by a Wisconsin-licensed teacher and receive a minimum number of days and hours of “direct student instruction . . . delivered by a properly licensed teacher.” In other words, certified teachers are required to play a major role in children’s education. It also cited statutes relating to school districts paying parents. It included potential penalties for failure to comply with the statutes, including reducing the money that school districts get from the state for schools and not counting some students as enrolled in a school district.
• A recent newspaper article supports these points. An article in the Wausau Daily Herald on July 28, 2012, includes the following statements: “Parents . . . will do the bulk of the teaching in the program.” John Hagemeister, the administrator of BVA, “also traveled to Madison to discuss issues such as how Bridges will handle the separation of church and state when it comes to curriculum. Bridges will not pay for religious materials that are part of curriculums, Hagemeister said.” (Hagemeister’s discussions were with the DPI.)
• Local newspapers in Wisconsin that are associated with the Gannett media conglomerate have recently published articles criticizing virtual charter schools. The articles concern homeschoolers because they show that alternative schools, including homeschools, are still being judged by public school standards. See “Newspaper's Criticism of Virtual Charter Schools Raises Concerns for Homeschoolers” in WPA Newsletter #113, September, 2012, page 4.
What We Can Do
• We can help slow or stop the spread of these programs by educating our local school boards. We have important information they need but are unlikely to get elsewhere. An easy way to do this is to send each member of the board a letter. Below is a sample letter you are welcome to use fully or in part. Names and postal and or email addresses of the members of local school boards of education are probably available on school district websites under “Board of Education.”
(Note: Speaking at a school board meeting is usually even more effective. Contact your local school board for information about how to do this.)
Dear [First and Last Name], Member of the [Name of your school district] School Board,
Several districts have set up virtual charter schools so they can enroll homeschoolers from around the state in their district through open enrollment while the students continue to study at home, thereby increasing enrollment and district revenues at a low cost to the district. I am writing to ask you to oppose such a program if it is proposed for our district. Please consider the following information, some of which may not be readily available to you from other sources.
• Districts have economic incentives for creating such virtual charter schools. Each student who open enrolls in their virtual charter school from another district increases the district’s revenues by an average of $6,500 while the sending district also receives an average of $6,500, often without ever seeing the student. Because virtual charter schools cost so much less to operate than brick and mortar schools, districts can make money even when they receive only $6,500 for a student who open enrolls into their virtual charter school. At the same time, virtual charter schools cost Wisconsin taxpayers an average of $13,000 per student.
• Such virtual charter schools are likely to be challenged on several grounds.
(1) These schools may be spending taxpayers’ money without adequate accountability.
(2) These schools may be in violation of Wisconsin statutes, including those that require that all public school students be taught by a Wisconsin-certified teacher for a minimum number of hours and days each school year. In addition, some virtual charter schools have promised to cover the cost of curriculum and/or private lessons, despite the fact that state law does not permit school districts to pay parents for purchasing a curriculum, electronic devices, or books.
(3) Virtual charter schools that have told parents they can use religious curriculums may be challenged for violating the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state.
On June 15, 2012, the DPI sent a strongly worded letter to all school district administrators expressing its concerns about such programs and outlining statutes that pertain to them, including possible penalties for failure to comply. This letter is evidence of the possibility of legal challenges to such virtual charter schools. (A copy of the letter is available on the WPA website. Go to: http://homeschooling-wpa.org/, click on “Issues and Legislation” at the top of the home page and then on “Virtual Charter Schools” on the right side of the page.)
• If there are legal challenges, school districts will have to pay the cost of them.
• A series of articles highly critical of virtual charter schools was published by a number of local Wisconsin newspapers owned by Gannett, a media conglomerate, in August, 2012.
• Such schools are likely to weaken taxpayer support for public schools. When taxpayers find out that children can be educated for less money through programs such as these, they may want to reduce tax dollars spent on conventional public schools.
• Districts that are hoping to make a significant amount of money by convincing homeschoolers to enroll in virtual charter schools should realize that over the long haul, these programs are unlikely to grow very large. During the past decade, virtual charter schools have not grown very much. Also, only about 2% of the school age population is homeschooling. Many of them are not interested in being involved with the public schools. Once the fraction of former homeschoolers who are willing to accept public school regulation have enrolled, either growth will level off or students who are currently attending brick and mortar public schools will enroll in virtual charter schools, thereby undermining brick and mortar schools.
• Such programs blur the distinction between public schools and homeschools, making it more difficult for both groups to maintain their identify and carry out their mission. I am writing both as a homeschooler and as a resident of the [Name] School District.
If the establishment of a virtual charter school aimed at homeschoolers is proposed in our district, please oppose it.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter. If you have questions or want more information, please feel free to contact me.
[Your Telephone Number]