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Singing the praises of district virtual schools

Singing the praises of district virtual schools

Mitch Coffman
June 19, 2010

The teachers’ union hymnal, which is echoed by most opinion writers, has the following lyrics: public schools and public school teachers are always entitled to more. Education is to be exempted from the diminished income many of us are living with these days. And if you have a problem with any of this, you are anti-education, anti-child and very possibly dangerous.

The Idaho Statesman’s editorial page on June 16 pointed out the legislature cut education funding which has led to the Boise School District cutting services. But instead of singing along with the “more money” union tune, they were ambivalent. They implied money is tight, it’s going to stay tight, and we, as newspaper pundits, are not quite sure what to do about it.

If that was what was in the back of their collective mind, they were showing admirable knowledge of the real world. Even after re-election, with the specter of the Tea Party lurking nearby, raising taxes would be political suicide for nearly every Republican legislator. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where they would do it.

It would be best for everyone if public schools learned to live within their present means. One option deserving closer study is being shown in Idaho Falls’ Bonneville School District 93 where the Bonneville District Virtual Academy just completed its first year.

The Bonneville District Virtual Academy is an online school with the curriculum provided by K12, a Virginia company. (Disclosure: K12 also supplies the Idaho Virtual Academy, an online public charter school my children attend.) Three more Idaho school districts will open their own virtual academies with K12 curricula next year: Vallivue in Canyon County, North Gem near Soda Springs and Bear Lake County.

By every measure the Bonneville District Virtual Academy succeeded. Offering grades K-8, it needed 35 students for the program to pay for itself; it got 83. The school anticipates most students’ return including this year’s eighth-graders as the school expands into ninth grade. Standardized testing scores were high, and parents were happy with the Academy curriculum, their children's outcomes and their ability to dual-enroll in regular district extra-curricular activities. The Academy will continue to add a grade per year.

The Academy’s costs to the district are the principal’s salary, a little office space and materials and services from K12. The principal is also a teacher to K-5th students and a Bonneville District teacher handles the older children. They don’t need classroom space because the school is virtual.

Please notice: a not-insignificant proportion of Bonneville District students were successfully served at a more-than 40:1 student-to-teacher ratio. No wonder the Bonneville District Superintendent Dr. Chuck Shackett has called the Bonneville District Virtual Academy a moneymaker. The district’s per-pupil allotment stayed the same, but their expenses decreased.

Virtual learning isn’t for every child or family. However, every district offering one could go a long way towards balancing budgets and property tax relief. It’s time to throw away the old hymnal and a sing a new song about increasing teacher productivity without increasing costs by using technology.

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