Online schools a virtual reality in Sacramento

New study questions student success, value of public funding

Miriam Lyons has 25 years of teaching experience and now works in a hybrid online and brick-and-mortar-classroom program, part of the Elk Grove Unified School District Virtual Academy.

Miriam Lyons has 25 years of teaching experience and now works in a hybrid online and brick-and-mortar-classroom program, part of the Elk Grove Unified School District Virtual Academy.

photo by taras garcia

Read the National Education Policy Center report on virtual schools at
Learn more about K12 Inc.'s virtual schools at

When Kelly Krug’s son Ben struggled academically, the Fair Oaks mom looked for options that provided computerized instruction. Called “virtual schools,” these new classrooms allow students to learn course work entirely via online methods. Krug enrolled Ben, and he thrived—but a new study on virtual schools says that his success story is an exception to the rule.

An 80-page national report released last week on full-time virtual schools found problems with student performance and also a lack of oversight of public dollars spent on this brave new cyber world.

Some private virtual-school companies operating here in Sacramento have grown enrollment by more than 20 percent annually over the past several years. This means that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars go toward these new online classrooms, which has some critics worried.

“[There’s] lagging performance [and] lots of taxpayer money at stake, and very little solid evidence to justify the rapid expansion of virtual schools,” said University of Colorado at Boulder professor Alex Molnar, who edited the new National Education Policy Center study.

His report shows that virtual schools trail traditional brick-and-mortars in performance and graduation rates. “In the 2010-2011 school year, for instance, 52 percent of brick-and-mortar district and charter schools met AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal government’s measurement for student development based on standardized tests], contrasted with 23.6 percent of virtual schools.”

Despite the scathing study, some local parents give rave reviews to online schools.

Kelly Smith of Elk Grove likes the pace at which Logan, her 8-year-old son, learns in the Elk Grove Unified School District’s Virtual Academy. This is his third year in the program.

Miriam Lyons, with 25 years of classroom teaching experience, is one of three teachers at Elk Grove’s program, a hybrid model of online and classroom education that opened three years ago. The Virtual Academy enrolls 66 students, grades K-8, who get in-person tutoring weekly in addition to online course work.

“We just finished up an algebra workshop,” said Lyons, adding that “you can’t really learn that subject online.”

This Elk Grove classroom is part of the nation’s largest virtual-school outfit, K12 Inc., based out of Virginia. The publicly traded, for-profit firm operates in all 50 states and also 85 countries, according to a recent company statement.

K12 gets the full dollar amount of public funding for each student enrolled, according to Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University and co-author of the new NEPC study.

He says the problem is that K12 is accountable to shareholders, not taxpayers. Which is why his new study also recommends more research into and oversight of online schools.

State agencies need more and better data, according to the report’s authors, especially when it comes to tracking public money that flows to private online schools.

SN&R contacted the California Department of Education for data on virtual-school funding, but according to the CDE’s School Fiscal Services Division, it does not collect information on how virtual schools calculate student attendance or the amount of state tax dollars companies receive.

In the meantime, ads for online schools continue to lure new students, as the NEPC study describes.

A radio commercial on K12 Inc. is what caught the attention of Krug, as her eldest son struggled in fourth grade. “His reading and math skills were falling further and further behind level,” she said. The family had searched for a school to meet his specific needs. They observed and researched private and public charter and traditional options.

“We wanted to ensure that he would catch up in his problem areas,” Krug said. Ben blossomed in the K12 learning environment, according to his mother.

The key to K12’s online-learning approach, Krug said, is that it requires students to master skills in lessons and assessments before advancing. She is now also a K12 middle-school teacher and teacher trainer.

Krug’s youngest son, Sam, has been attending the California Virtual Academies, a tuition-free and virtual public charter school, since first grade.

According to K12, its 13 CAVAs statewide have grown on average at a rate of 20 percent annually since 2008.

In California, there were 33 full-time virtual schools serving 18,350 students in 2011-12; nationally, there are more than 200,000 elementary and secondary students in 39 states and the District of Columbia, according to the NEPC study. The state’s overall number of public-school students was 6.2 million in 2009-10.

SN&R asked for the amount of tax dollars CAVA receives for its students but was unable to obtain said number. If K12 receives an average of $5,000 in state funding per student each year, the annual sum of taxpayer monies received could be upward of $70 million.

The NEPC study urges no further growth of full-time virtual schools now, as their backers, focused on private profit, “are several years ahead of policymakers and researchers.”