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A 'Virtual' Escape from the Public Schoolhouse 
APPLETON, WI - In Wisconsin and at least eight other states, thousands of students are enrolling in online "virtual" charter schools. These new cyber schools are run by private educational ventures, teaching students at home online in a form of "distance learning." They are quickly becoming popular with parents seeking an alternative to bricks-and-mortar public schools and the problems associated with them. Home cyber schools allow parents direct involvement in their child's education.

The Wisconsin Connections Academy opened last fall under a charter granted by the Appleton Area School District, and educated 250 students from 85 school districts in its first year. The academy has 275 students enrolled for next year with 650 applications pending.

A second virtual school, the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, will open this fall under a charter granted by the rural Ozaukee County School District. With 300 students already enrolled and 600 applications pending, the Virtual Academy is making waves before its first students have logged on. School district administrators across the state are concerned about the prospect of losing dozens of students, and the state funds that go with them, to the new charter schools.

Under Wisconsin's open enrollment laws, students can enroll in any school district their parents wish. The student's "home" district must pay the $5,000 cost of educating each child online for one school year. "I'm always concerned when there's a drain on our budget," David Schmidt, superintendent of the Waukesha School District, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (5-25-03). The Waukesha district reportedly could lose as many as 39 students to the Virtual Academy. The Milwaukee Public Schools have 44 students approved for enrollment in the academy, more than any single district in the state so far.

Schmidt admitted that if parents continue lining up to enroll their children in cyber schools, Wisconsin school districts may be forced to begin denying students open enrollment. Others are suggesting that the Wisconsin legislature reconsider the open enrollment laws and some districts are even contemplating starting their own cyber schools in an effort to stem the tide.

Virtual schools have the teacher unions up in arms as well. The Wisconsin Education Association (the state's NEA affiliate) filed suit last September against the Wisconsin Connections Academy, claiming the cyber school is illegal and ineligible for state funding because it does not physically enroll students. Also named in the suit are the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Appleton Area School District, which the union claims illegally granted the academy's charter.

On the other side of the spectrum, some homeschooling groups fear that virtual charter schools provide public school districts with the means to lure home-schooling families into the system, noting that many of the new cyber school students were already homeschooled. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) called the Wisconsin Connections Academy "a trojan horse," and warned homeschoolers that families who enroll their children will "waive certain parental rights and agree to homeschool according to public school rules."

HSLDA noted that in other states where cyber schools are operating, "more and more regulations are gradually placed on the enrolled homeschooling family each year. If the family does not comply, the 'virtual' school will demand return of the computer, curriculum, etc."

The Connections Academies are K-8 schools sponsored by Sylvan Ventures, the research and investment arm of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. (Their website is www.connectionsacademy.com ) Sylvan provides the curriculum, a staff of six teachers, computers for each student, and internet access to students' homes. In addition to the new charter school in Wisconsin, Connections Academies are operating in Colorado and Pennsylvania (fall 2003), with legislative initiatives underway to introduce them in Florida and Georgia.

The K-12 Virtual Academies are operated by a private company headed by former Education Secretary William Bennett. Established in 1999 by Bennett and a group of educators and corporate leaders concerned about education, Virtual Academies offer a K-12 curriculum in six subjects: language arts, math, science, history, art, and music. Computer systems with printers and internet connection are provided. Instructional materials include textbooks, workbooks, planning and progress tools, maps, math and science supplies, videos and CDs.

Students are graded by both parents and teachers, with teachers awarding semester grades. Parents review their children's work on a daily basis, while teachers review the work online. Parent-teacher conferences are conducted by telephone every two weeks.

K-12 Virtual Academies claim to provide a quality education and to involve parents in program design and development. The website www.k12.com states that "more than 1,000 parents have volunteered to help us create our program and gauge its effectiveness. Parents participate in surveys, focus groups, lesson reviews, round-table discussions, and product testing."

Bennett's company denies that its Virtual Academies are detrimental to homeschooling. "We strongly support home schooling," the website states. "We believe families should be able to make their own choices in how their child is educated, and the more options families have, the more they are empowered."

In addition to the new Waukesha charter school in Wisconsin, Virtual Academies are operating in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

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