Business is booming at Wisconsin Virtual Academy after two of the state's biggest virtual schools split from the country's largest online K-12 education service provider.
The online charter school based in the McFarland School District, which next year will be the only virtual school in Wisconsin run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., saw a 50 percent increase in open enrollment applications this year, up from 2,402 to 3,586.
The increase comes as McFarland Superintendent Scott Brown prepares to report to his school board next month about whether WIVA is meeting performance benchmarks in the five-year charter contract that runs through mid-2014.
In an interview last week, Brown said WIVA's state test scores are not meeting the contractual benchmarks, though he said the report isn't finalized. He added the district may need more time to track how students improve over multiple years.
"There's not been pressure to discontinue the relationship from any source," Brown said.
It also comes as K12 and other for-profit education management companies face heightened scrutiny for tapping public sources to generate sizable profits.
An annual report in January by the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center found about half of the virtual schools managed by large companies failed to meet student test score benchmarks under No Child Left Behind. In a separate study last fall, the center concluded further study and oversight of virtual schools is warranted.
WIVA experienced by far the steepest increase in applicants among the largest virtual schools in the state, according to a State Journal survey. The state expanded the open enrollment period from three weeks in February to three months for the first time this year. Parents could apply to up to three schools by April 30, and if accepted must decide to enroll by June 29.
The virtual school industry lobbied for extending the open enrollment period and uses the window to market services to parents around the state. Open enrollment changes signed into law in February also allow students to apply for transfers year-round if they meet certain criteria. Last year's state budget removed a cap on virtual school enrollment.
WIVA principal Leslye Erickson said the school's increase in applicants was consistent with the trend the school has seen since moving from the Northern Ozaukee School District to McFarland in 2009, and not the result of the extended open enrollment period.
Comforts of home
Virtual schools allow students to view lectures, work on material and take tests without leaving their home. Through open enrollment, virtual schools can draw students from all over the state, along with about $6,500 in state aid drawn from that student's home school district.
Rick Nettesheim, principal of IQ Academy in the Waukesha School District, which saw its applications during the open enrollment period decline about 15 percent, from 1,321 last year to 1,123 this year, said WIVA's gain may be coming at the expense of his and another virtual school in Grantsburg that are severing ties with K12 after this school year.
Nettesheim's school is changing its name to eAchieve Academy after eight years as IQ Academy, which was acquired by K12 in 2010. He said the decision was partly based on cost — K12 received 60 percent, or about $3 million, of the school's annual state revenue to provide curriculum, support services and marketing.
K12 still hosts the IQ Academy website, but during the open enrollment period it featured a K12 phone number that Nettesheim said directed prospective students to WIVA.
K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said callers who asked about eAchieve Academy were directed to that school. Otherwise they were told IQ Academy will not be offered next year and given information about WIVA because it's the only virtual school in Wisconsin that used K12 for marketing services during the open enrollment period.
Nettesheim said he asked K12 to replace the number with one for eAchieve Academy, but the company refused. He accused K12 of "blatant corporate bullying."
"It certainly doesn't feel right to be sucking public funds for a corporate entity like this and using these kinds of hardball tactics," Nettesheim said.
Kwitowski said Waukesha made the decision to launch a different program.
"Under the terms of the agreement, K12 is not obligated to advertise or promote a different program that the district intends to offer next year," he said.
Enrollment may hit 1,500
WIVA has increased from 468 students in 2009 to 819 in 2010 to 1,058 this year, according to state data. With more applicants the school plans to increase enrollment to at least 1,500 students next year, Erickson said. The school expects to maintain its current student-teacher ratio of 42 to 1 in grades K-8 and 29 to 1 in high school by hiring more teachers for next year, she said.
The McFarland School District collects state aid and passes it to the school, keeping $300,000 in management fees plus about $200 for each student over 800. K12 receives 22 percent, or about $1.4 million, of the $6.3 million in total state revenue the district received this year.
WIVA's state test scores vary between grades but are generally lower than McFarland's, which is why the district separates them out when reporting its scores in the spring.
WIVA's four-year graduation rate, which was reported Thursday to be 30.4 percent, also is significantly lower than the rest of the district, which including WIVA was 88.9 percent.
Brown attributes the lower graduation rate to a high rate of students transferring for their final year of high school without enough credits to graduate.
He said the district's oversight involves "considerable district time and effort" including development and analysis of the school's annual performance goals, supervision of special education responsibilities, and monitoring of the annual budget and audit reports. The district also receives access to K12's various curriculum products.
"It's very important for us that a school within our district have high test scores and student growth," Brown said.