The best explanation – I mean the funniest – as to why the state Senate put a poison-pill enrollment cap on virtual schools was from state Sen. Russ Decker, the Weston Democrat who helped do it.
The fault lies with the schools, he says. Just too many parents were opting for them. In growth, “some of those virtual schools are pushing the envelope.”
Leave aside that pushing the envelope – inventing a new way to deliver a good education – is the point. On its face, the sentiment that the schools were growing faster than legally proper is nonsense.
Parents choose virtual schools, in which students are taught at home via daily online lessons, by the same law that allows any parent to send her child to any other public school. This open enrollment law has no upper limit and is now used by 23,000 students statewide. As for virtual schools, which account for 3,300 of those, the law did not limit their growth either until two months ago when a lawsuit by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s dominant teachers union, hit the jackpot. Decker’s envelope exists solely in his head.
So the Senate, on party lines with the exception of one honorable Democrat, installed one – dictating that for two years, virtual schools can grow no larger. They can inch up to 4,500 students by 2014, but senators also set auditors to studying the program. All this was needed, says Decker, because Gov. Jim Doyle wouldn’t agree to let the schools stay open otherwise.
There is still time to save Wisconsin’s virtual schools, but the clock is ticking after a state Senate vote this week that unwisely capped enrollment and blew up a bipartisan compromise.
In a letter to legislators on the eve of the vote, Gov. Jim Doyle called for a cap on enrollment and recommended a study to determine how well virtual schools were serving students and what their fiscal impact was on existing public schools and property taxes.
The request for a study is sensible enough, but the cap is a solution looking for a problem. And now, despite exceptions for siblings of existing students and for students who signed up during the current open enrollment period, some children may be denied the opportunity to learn in an environment that is best suited to their needs.
Legislation was needed after a state Court of Appeals ruled in December that the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, operated by the Northern Ozaukee School District, was not eligible for state aid. That ruling threatened the existence of all 12 online schools in the state, which serve more than 3,000 students.
The compromise plan was a good one that balanced the need to legalize virtual schools while imposing new standards on them. It had the support of the state Department of Public Instruction.
The Senate vote sends the measure back to the Assembly, where Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon) said Thursday he would draft new legislation that includes a financial audit but not a cap. He also planned to send a letter to Doyle inviting the governor or his staff to a hearing on Monday to explain why a cap is necessary.
Much more on Wisconsin’s Virtual Schools here.