State needs to keep an eye on online schools

By Iowa City Press-Citizen


When you speak with Allan Nelson, he hardly comes across as a revolutionary.

Indeed, Nelson seems more likely to be typecast as a by-the-book bureaucrat than as a radical willing to transform the whole state of Iowa into an educational battleground.

Yet that’s just what his critics say Nelson, the superintendent of Clayton Ridge Community School District, did when he started working with the for-profit online educational company, K12 Inc., to supplement the educational experience the rural district could provide to his roughly 600 students.

When meeting with the Editorial Board last month, Nelson explained that he decided to contact companies like K12 Inc. after then Gov. Chet Culver called for a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut in 2009. Fearful that the cuts would eliminate some of the elective and advanced classes the small district in northeast Iowa could offer, Nelson said he was ready to think outside the brick-and-mortar box.

Now Clayton Ridge is one of two districts in the state that, starting in the fall, will offer its students a full-time, online instruction model. Contracting with K12 Inc., Clayton Ridge is offering the Iowa Virtual Academy. The CAM School District, located in southeast Iowa, is working with the company Connections Academy of offer a virtual Iowa Connections Academy learning center.

While Nelson sees the partnership as an opportunity to continue to offer a range of educational options to his students, the contract with K12 Inc. does include some financial benefits to the district as well. Clayton Ridge and CAM, after all, will receive the same amount of state funding — roughly $6,000 — for students enrolled in the online academies as they would for students enrolled in the brick-and-mortar schools. (The district keeps a small percentage of that money before passing it on to the out-of-state company.)

And with Iowa’s generous open enrollment policy, students living anywhere in the state can open enroll into these online academies.

At least five Iowa City-area families, in fact, have decided against enrolling in the local school districts and instead have open enrolled their children the online academies.

Jonathon Valentine, for example, said his three daughters attended a similar online school in Wisconsin before the family moved to Iowa City several years ago. Because they had such a positive experience with the online education model, Valentine said he was disappointed a similar program wasn’t then offered in Iowa.

The Valentines had enrolled their 8-year-old son, Josiah, in the Iowa City Community School District, but after disagreeing with an administrative decision earlier this year, they decided to home-school him instead.

Now, with the option of the Iowa Virtual Academy, they decided to give Josiah the same opportunities that his sisters had.

“In some ways, (online education) is similar to homeschooling, but you have the great option of partnering with a public school teacher and getting that professional support and interaction,” Valentine told the Press-Citizen.

We don’t think online education is for everyone. (No one on the Editorial Board expressed any interest in enrolling his or her children in such a program.) And Nelson said Clayton Ridge only had about 100 students from across the state open enroll into the district by last month’s deadline.

But the question isn’t whether we would want our children to enroll; the question is whether parents should have such an option if it would benefit their children.

The Iowa attorney general and the state education director say that the law does allow such services. And we see some value in having the new programs in Clayton Ridge and CAM serve as pilot programs to test the education that can be provided by such private-public partnerships. (Allan Nelson eventually may be viewed as a forward-thinking revolutionary.)

But we also think state lawmakers and educational officials will need to keep a close eye on these programs. If the online programs are doing something right, then brick-and-mortar schools will need to learn from them. And if the online programs fail to live up to the hype, then the state will need to place restrictions on them.

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