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Online Public School Enrolls Private School Students. Is That Legal?

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A small and shrinking school district near Los Angeles came up with a novel way to stem its enrollment loss: Set up a virtual school and enroll students from far-away Catholic schools. 

The hitch?

Those students continued to attend their Catholic schools full-time while also being counted as full time enrollees in the district. This legally dubious arrangement is at the center of a Los Angeles Times story published Friday, and it highlights how some struggling districts may use virtual schools to help prop up their enrollment.

The Times story describes how the nearly 5,000-student Lennox school district partnered with St. Francis Parish School in Bakersfield—more than 100 miles from Lennox—in what was described by St. Francis as a "unique pilot program." 

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Students were supposed to log in to their public online school daily, although it appears they rarely did. Lennox officials reported to the state education agency that the Bakersfield students were attending its virtual school full-time and received extra money from the state. By enrolling students in Lennox's virtual school, St. Francis got a cut of that money as well as free Chromebooks for each participating student. Here are more details from the LA Times:

"What Lennox got out of it was more kids, and more kids meant more money. That year, according to state education data, the district's state funding increased by at least $3 million as overall enrollment rose, largely through students signed up for the virtual academy.

"Catholic schools nationwide have been struggling with enrollment too, and some have been forced to close. Lennox's offer of free classroom technology came at an opportune moment."

Is this arrangement legal?

Probably not, according to legal experts interviewed by the LA Times. Not only are the district's claims to these doubly-enrolled students shaky, California also has strict rules separating church and state. (I encourage you to read the full LA Times story for all the details.)

This isn't the first example of a district creating a virtual school to enroll students outside its geographic boundaries.

Education Week's Benjamin Herold and I reported on this practice in rural Colorado and Tennessee as part of an investigation into virtual schools and the for-profit companies that often run them on behalf of districts and charter school boards.

Rewarding Failure: And Education Week Investigation Into the Cyber Charter School Industry

Nationally, virtual schools receive more than a billion dollars in public money each year, and they continue to expand despite a poor academic track record and over a decade of state and media investigations documenting mismanagement in many schools. 

However, this case in California is the first example I've seen of a virtual school duel enrolling students from private schools.

In other virtual school news...

One of North Carolina's two, closely watched online charter schools showed some improvement this year, although both schools continue to struggle academically.

State lawmakers created a five-year pilot program allowing two online charter schools to open, despite their troubled track record in other states and recent studies casting doubt on the effectiveness of such schools.

As part of that Education Week investigation I mentioned earlier, I reported on the lobbying efforts by one online school company, K12 Inc., to get North Carolina lawmakers to pass such a law. (To read K12 Inc.'s response to Education Week's investigation, which includes details about North Carolina, click here.)

Both North Carolina Virtual Academy, run by K12 Inc. and North Carolina Connections Academy, run by Connections Education (which, in turn, is owned by Pearson), received "D" grades for the 2016-17 school year, same as the prior year.

However, Connection's grades climbed from a C to a B in reading, and an F to a D in math. North Carolina Virtual Academy's grades remained a C in reading and an F in math.

Related stories:

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