Early each school day morning, 10-year-old twins Galyn and Grace Hartung and their 8-year-old brother Henry bound out of the house and run to the school bus stop to play with friends from their Cross Plains neighborhood. But when the school bus pulls up to the curb some 20 minutes later, only the friends get on board.
The Hartung kids, virtual school students, head back home to a brightly painted basement room where many assignments are digital, the teachers are heard through a laptop and the study hall monitor is mom.
"It just feels like a normal way to do school," said Grace.
Galyn, Grace and Henry are among some 3,955 students enrolled this fall in 12 virtual charter schools statewide. That's up from 3,829 students in 2009-10 and 2,983 in 2008-09.
While controversy over virtual schools - How many students should be allowed to attend them? Do they provide a sound education? - has died down since a lawsuit by the Wisconsin Education Association Council prompted changes to state law in 2007, this online approach to education has seen a steady increase in participation, drawing in more students formerly home-schooled and helping to shift the financial landscape of many brick-and-mortar school districts.
Almost 93 percent of virtual school students are "open enrolled" from districts across Wisconsin, meaning the per-student state dollars that normally would go to their home district follows them to another region of the state.
In Madison, an estimated $6,796 will follow each of the 101 students open-enrolling this year into a virtual school based in another district, a total of nearly $700,000.
A report by the state's Legislative Audit Bureau published in February found that in the 2007-08 school year, per-pupil expenditures for virtual school students were less than what the district received in open-enrollment dollars. That same year, virtual schools spent $714,900 for advertising, the report showed.
"One of my concerns is that (virtual schools) are a huge money-maker for the district hosting them, and that shouldn't be what drives education," said Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, who chairs the state Assembly's education committee.
When she examined virtual schools a few years ago, "In my mind, these students were not really being represented by a board of education that knew them, cared about them," Pope-Roberts said. "The curriculum came from out of state. There was a lot about it that I found very distasteful. On the other hand, there's been a lot going on in virtual schools that I find very high quality. So it's a mixed bag."
Virtual charter schools in Wisconsin are public schools, with the charters issued by public school districts and students subject to the same standardized state tests as other public school students.
The Wisconsin legislature in 2007 imposed a yearly enrollment cap of 5,250 students in virtual schools statewide, a cap that Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, and the father of a student at a brick-and-mortar public school, has tried to abolish.
"We're simply at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to online learning," said Davis. "I think the opportunities are limitless across Wisconsin."
Many reasons for enrollment
Advocates for virtual schools say the reasons students enroll in them are as diverse as the students themselves. Some have disabilities, behavior problems, attention deficit or severe allergies that prevent them from functioning well in a traditional classroom. Others are high-achieving students who want to work at a faster pace or trim back their school day to pursue another interest such as music. Still others might be young mothers who want to stay home with a baby or students in a rural district who prefer online learning to a distant school that includes a long daily bus ride.
Even though the cap on virtual school enrollment has not been reached, supporters continue the push to end it. They also say students should be able to apply for admission in a virtual school at any time, not just during the brief statewide open-enrollment period each February.
"Our viewpoint is that every parent and every child should have every option open to them," said Julie Thompson, vice-president of the outspoken parent group Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families. "I know families where they send two of their students to a regular school, and two of them to virtual school, because that's what works for each individual child."
Cheryl Hartung first learned about the option from a postcard advertising the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, or WIVA, chartered for the past two years by the McFarland School District and using curriculum from K12, a company whose net income rose nearly 75 percent in the last fiscal year.
Hartung's daughter Blake, now 15, was struggling with math in fifth grade and Hartung had concerns about the social pressures that awaited in middle school. One of her other children had special-education needs and Hartung decided to enroll the three younger siblings in a virtual school as well.
"I was in no way dissatisfied with what was happening locally (in public schools)," said Hartung, a former broadcast journalist and stay-at-home mother whose husband is the information technology director for a family agribusiness firm.
But with computer learning "I thought, ‘Think of how much more you could do.'"
Unlike home schooling, virtual schools provide teachers, curriculum and supplies. Parents become "learning coaches" - and should expect to put in four to six hours daily for students in the early grades, said Leslye Moraski Erickson, WIVA's head of school.
"We are very up front with our families that this is a family commitment," she said. "For the parent that thinks that virtual education is ‘less schooling,' we'll be direct about what it entails. You do need a level of motivation, particularly as you launch into the middle school and high school years. If you are disengaged in your current school environment, it's even more difficult in ours."
Districts are adapting
Public school districts are adapting to the demand for online learning. In Middleton-Cross Plains, the district's new 21st Century eSchool combines virtual schooling with the chance to take two courses in a district school and participate in extra-curricular and athletic activities.
The Madison School District offers about 100 credit classes, ranging from core subjects to marine biology and Latin, to high school students through its Madison Virtual Campus program. Rather than being a virtual school, this "hybrid" system allows students to take some classes online while staying connected to services such as counselors, psychologists and the extra-curriculars a high school offers, said Lisa Wachtel, executive director of curriculum and assessment for the Madison School District.
Wisconsin Virtual School, a partnership between the state Department of Public Instruction and CESA 9, provides online courses to middle and high school students enrolled in their home districts across the state - and saw a 58 percent jump in course enrollments this year.
It's not unusual for students to move in and out of virtual schools: Linda Kostelyna's three sons in Madison were all home-schooled until she enrolled them in Wisconsin Connections Academy, a virtual school based in Appleton. Now, two of the three are students at Memorial High School. Blake Hartung attended WIVA for three years before heading to Middleton High School as a freshman in 2009. The family's basement has been outfitted as a classroom for her younger siblings, mostly from boxes shipped from their virtual school: three laptops, textbooks, workbooks, paints and brushes for art class, materials for science projects, and more.
"One year they sent us a microscope," said Cheryl Hartung. "It can't all be on the computer."