Virtual schools in Florida, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee are facing enrollment challenges and tough questions. Here's a roundup of some recent news reports.
Facing steep enrollment declines, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the largest state-run virtual school district in the country, announced that it is laying off 177 full-time staff and 625 part-time instructors, the Associated Press reported last week. Those cuts, together with more than 250 open positions that will remain unfilled, represent more than one-third of the group's workforce, according to a spokesperson for the school who talked with Education Week. The cuts affect mostly adjunct teachers.
"For the first time in 16 years, we had to make the painful decision to reduce staff," said Tania Clow, the community relations specialist for FLVS. "For many, these wonderful, caring and professional individuals are not only colleagues, but friends."
Clow said that FLVS, which offers individual online courses to tens of thousands of students across the state who also take classes in their home school districts, is feeling the impact of two major blows at once: a 32 percent decline in student enrollments since last year, and a change in the way the Florida legislature funds virtual schools.
Under the previous funding model, said Clow, if a student was enrolled full-time in a traditional public school and also took online classes from a school like FLVS, the home district would receive the full per-pupil allotment for that student, and FLVS would also receive a set amount for each class that student took.
Now, though, the legislature has capped the amount it will pay for an individual student, meaning smaller allotments for both the traditional district and the online provider.
FLVS is expecting a net reduction of $17.6 million in state revenue for this year. That represents a 12.4 percent drop in the group's overall revenue.
"The entire FLVS family is saddened by the new realities we are facing," Clow said. "All of us are working together to make the transition as seamless as possible, for our colleagues and for our students."
In addition to providing classes to students still enrolled in traditional schools, FLVS also operates a full-time virtual school. That operation will not be affected by the layoffs, Clow said.
Last month, FLVS received a planning grant to begin adding a face-to-face educational component that school officials hope will provide students with more options.
"We're optimistic that the new initiatives we have coming will increase enrollments in the future," Clow said. "We're optimistic that we'll get right back on track."
The AP also reported this week that the superintendent of the Lawrence, Kansas, school district raised concerns about the academic performance of students at two virtual charter schools, both of which have contractual relationships with for-profit virtual school operator K12 Inc.
Rick Doll, the superintendent of the 11,000-student district, suggested that Lawrence schools are looking to build on a blended learning pilot and increase its own online offerings to students in order to minimize the need for external virtual schools.
"We're not there yet, and we probably have several years before we get there, but I can tell you that we're already having those discussions," Doll told the AP.
According to the AP report, half of the tested students at Lawrence Virtual High, wholly owned and operated by K12 Inc., did not meet state standards in math in 2012. Almost 19 percent failed to meet state standards in reading.
The Lawrence Virtual School, a K-8 school owned by the school district that pays K12 Inc., for curriculum and student recruitment, also had disappointing math results, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.
In Philadelphia, my former colleagues at the Public School Notebook report that the new Philadelphia Virtual Academy (PVA), set to start serving children in September, has enrolled 118 students as of Monday.
Interestingly, Fran Newberg, the deputy chief of educational technology for the 146,000-student Philadelphia district, told the Notebook that the district has been going directly after students currently enrolled in the state's 16 existing cyber charter schools.
"We've been sending communications to those [cyber school] families by mail. We're saying check out PVA, not only for the quality but for the personalization and the drop-in centers," Newberg said.
In my past life, I wrote extensively about how the exponential growth of cyber charter enrollment has been impacting traditional school districts in the state. Pennsylvania, which has one of the most generous funding models in the nation for cyber charters, requires that traditional school districts pay the bulk of the tuition for each student from their jurisdiction who enrolls in a charter, either brick-and-mortar or online. This year, the state's 16 cyber charters, none of which met their federally mandated performance targets last year, will enroll a combined 35,000 students and receive at least $366 million in taxpayer funds.
Pennsylvania districts have been responding by offering their own online programs and seeking legislative changes.
Of the 118 students the Philadelphia Virtual Academy has so far attracted, half are returning to the district from charters or cyber charters, and about 30 might otherwise have attended a charter or cyber charter, the Notebook reports.
Philadelphia district officials had previously estimated that drawing 85 students back from charters would allow them to break even on their own online school.
But they also predicted they would be able to enroll 1,000 students this year, a goal that will almost certainly prove to have been overly ambitious, even with the chaos surrounding the looming opening of the district's traditional schools.
K12 Inc. is also facing problems in Tennessee.
"State officials, who are still grappling with low first-year student performance at K12 Inc.'s controversial Tennessee Virtual School in Union County, recently refused to approve [the company's] latest venture," the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported on Friday.
The Times Free Press story quotes a letter sent by state deputy education commissioner Kathleen Airhart to the leadership of Campbell County schools, where K12 Inc. was supposed to open the Tennessee Cyber Academy.
"We remain concerned about your ability to successfully open and operate this school for the 2013-2014 school year," reads the letter.
A K12 spokesman told the Times Free Press that the company and the school district "are still in contract negotiations."