Net gain?

Out-of-state companies bring all-online education to Iowa

Iowa families typically have three education options: public school, private school or home school.

Two public school districts are adding a fourth option.

Clayton Ridge School District in Guttenberg and CAM School District in Anita recently announced plans to open virtual academies in the fall that are operated by for-profit, out-of-state education management companies.

Virtual schools, where students are taught entirely online, are on the rise around the nation, with the International Association for K12 Online Learning listing schools in more than 38 states.

Clayton Ridge’s Iowa Virtual Academy will offer an online school for grades K-6 with K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va., company that operates online public schools in 31 states.

CAM has contracted with Baltimore-based Connections Academy, which operates schools in 20 states, to open the K-12 Iowa Connections Academy. Connections recently was purchased by international education company Pearson, which has offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

Clayton Ridge first considered virtual schooling in 2009 after a 10 percent across-the-board state funding cut, said Superintendent Allen Nelson. It forced the district to look at options for learning at a lower cost.

“I don’t want to come across like we’re trying to replace anything,” said Nelson. “It’s a parental choice option. It’s another option for a very small percentage of students who might prefer this type of delivery system.”

The districts each have an arrangement with their private partners for an Iowa Core-aligned curriculum and to hire state-licensed teachers.

The intended target for these schools are students not currently served by the Iowa public education system. This spectrum includes students currently home-schooled, homebound because of medical problems and in isolated rural locations.

Nelson estimated as many as 250 students could enroll in Clayton Ridge’s program.

CAM Superintendent Steve Pelzer would not speculate as to how many students his program would attract.

“This is brand new, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a need out there,” he said. “I’ve had calls myself from quite a few parents asking about it that currently home-school.”

Wendy Arnburg, a child-care provider in Des Moines, previously had looked into using K12 Inc.’s curriculum to home-school her kindergarten-age daughter, but the program was too expensive to pay for on her own. She enrolled her daughter in Clayton Ridge’s program after hearing about the Iowa Virtual Academy on the radio.

“It’s a lot more challenging than the Des Moines public school home-school program,” she said. “It really is out of the box, ready to go. I don’t have to look for a curriculum. It’s easy.”

The companies behind these schools are actively recruiting and marketing around the state through television, radio and public meetings for open-enrolled students.

Open enrollment allows Iowa students to attend any public school in the state if they apply before the March 1 deadline. When a student open-enrolls in another district, the state’s per-pupil funding allocation follows him or her to the new school. This means CAM and Clayton Ridge receive $5,883 from the state for each out-of-district student.

Other rural Iowa superintendents have wondered whether this approach is legal, as it potentially sends state taxpayer money to for-profit companies outside of Iowa. An Iowa Department of Education review found the plans comply with state law, though.

Marcia Powell, an Independence teacher, described herself as cautious about the new schools. She reviewed some of K12 Inc.’s science curriculum from other states and was not impressed with its rigor. She is worried about teacher quality.

“There’s a different type of ownership in hiring someone else who is going to be a subcontractor for an online class,” she said.

Powell supports online learning; she not only teaches chemistry classes online but has daughters who take Internet courses. She’s part of a group of state teachers called the Iowa Communities of Practice and Innovation that is developing a blended online curriculum for Iowa schools that combines face-to-face and online instruction.

There is merit, however, in the building-free approach if developed with the proper level of customization for each student, said John Achrazoglou, a professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Education.“It needs to be styled toward student learning abilities and cognitive development,” he said. “If done well, it can meet the needs of learners from kindergarten on, even preschool.”

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