published Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Tennessee's ‘virtual school’ hits enrollment hiccup

NASHVILLE — As many as half of the more than 2,000 students applying to attend the state’s first public online academy have yet to be enrolled some three weeks into the beginning of the privately-operated institution’s school year, officials say.

Union County Schools Director Wayne Goforth and officials at K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va., for-profit virtual school company that runs Union County’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, blame problems on a variety of factors.

They range from more students than expected applying to issues some parents face in gathering and submitting by e-mail or fax documents establishing state residency, birth certificates and proof of immunization.

“This whole concept here has just really surprised us all in Tennessee in terms of enrollment and demand,” Goforth said.

But another issue involved, Goforth said, is the refusal by some school districts to approve the transfer of their students who did not meet the July 24 deadline on such transfers between school districts.

He estimated about 1,100 children have been enrolled and taking instruction from Tennessee-based teachers via computer since the virtual school opened its “doors” on Aug. 8.

“I think somewhere about that many more of those have yet to be enrolled,” said Goforth, who had no figures immediately at hand detailing delays by various categories.

Some parents posting on a Tennessee Virtual Academy Facebook page complained of delays and other problems. A number of others who are enrolled and have received their equipment and lesson plans praised the program.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly this spring approved legislation expanding the use of online coursework to include an entire school and permitting local systems to contract with for-profit companies.

Most Democrats fiercely opposed the measure, saying it was wrong to allow for-profit companies to siphon off taxpayer dollars.

Under state law, Goforth said, students seeking to transfer after the open enrollment date “have to seek the approval of the sending district, and that has caused us a lot of ups and downs.”

“A lot of times the directors don’t want to give permission for them to leave,” Goforth said. “And that’s their choice. I guess they don’t want to lose their [state] funding because in Tennessee, the funding follows the child.”

He estimated the county receives about $5,300 in state funds for every child who attends the Tennessee Virtual Academy. Goforth said he hears from parents that “one of the main” systems denying approval of late transfers is the Hamilton County schools system.

  • photo
    Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools Rick Smith listens during a talk with editors of Chattanooga Times Free Press recently.
    Photo by Alex Washburn.
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Hamilton County Schools Director Rick Smith said he has denied approving the transfers of 14 students, who were enrolled in the local school system last year, because their applications were late.

He said he only got an email from Goforth on Aug. 6 — days after the July 24 transfer deadline — listing 26 students seeking a late transfer.

Twelve had not been public school students at all, Smith said, and presumably had attended private schools or were being home-schooled. He said he had no authority regarding them.

Smith said after talking to parents of students and parents of those outside the public school system, he learned that families learned about the Tennessee Virtual Academy at various times following an advertising and promotion push by K12.

Smith said the district abides by deadlines for Hamilton County parents wishing to get their children into the system’s highly desirable magnet schools. It should be no different in approving late transfers.

He noted he has no idea how many local students might have applied and enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy prior to the July 24 deadline. The system has no power over their transfer, he said.

Union County schools receive a 4 percent administrative oversight fee. K12 receives the rest, but K12 and Goforth point out that the for-profit company is by no means reaping pure profit because of fixed costs including teachers, curriculum, online software development and equipment.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a critic of allowing the for-profit companies to run entire virtual schools said that “when the idea was officially floated in the Legislature, one of the arguments was that locals would be able to decide whether they wanted it. In fact, in the last days of session, I figured out that all it would take was one county to want to do it and every county would be affected.

“This is one more way in which we’re taking away the control that local bodies have to decide these important issues,” Berke said.

Goforth said any of the state’s school systems could have created a virtual school just as Union County has through K12.

He said some of Berke’s criticisms, outlined in a recent Chattanooga Times Free Press column, “looked like somebody uninformed to me.”

While Hamilton County offers online remedial courses for students, Smith said he knows very little about the operations of the virtual schools.

“Some of them are very large companies as I understand this one [K12] is,” Smith said. “The fact of the matter is when I got the email, I didn’t know anything about them. I just knew they didn’t meet a particular timeline of application.”

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about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
328Kwebsite said...

Many of our local colleges outsource their software and data needs to for-profit companies. A student attending local colleges may be logging on to four or five different companies' computers as part of getting their homework done. It's not a good idea for us to privatize our public education to this extent or in this way.

September 2, 2011 at 7:50 a.m.
MrCrumley said...

Like Georgia's, the Tennessee virtual academy is only going to become more popular. This "institutionalized" home schooling is a nice way for willing & able parents to be directly involved in their children's education. Using a prepackaged curriculum like K12's, is invaluable in helping less experienced parent educators instruct their kids.

September 2, 2011 at 9:44 a.m.
Ashley1014 said...

This issue is really about giving children more public school options and empowering parents with the freedom to choose those options. A response to Sen. Berke's attack on online public schools can be found here: http://bit.ly/p7U6kJ

September 2, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.
lkb731 said...

As one of the parents with complaints on TNVA's Facebook page, I would like to say that the process of applying after the deadline could be frustrating at times. However, TNVA principal Josh Williams was very hands on with parents who would call or email his office asking for help in the process. The curriculum is awesome and that's what we were hanging in there for. Our district was an anomaly, I guess. They did everything that they could to help us enroll (and wished him the best with his new endeavor), but with 2,000 students enrolling on the Union County end, it took time and communication sometimes broke down between K12 employees tasked with being admission counselors and parents. I chose K12/TNVA because my son had fallen behind over the last few years, even though he is gifted in reading, his ADHD made it hard for him in math and science. Their curriculum is very rigorous, but we like that he is actually challenged and he does have the opportunity to learn some things more in depth. We hope to have him caught up by the end of the school year so that he can start high school at the same level as his peers.

September 3, 2011 at 1:47 a.m.
jennimme said...

As a former virtual school instructor I will tell you when I asked how we should address the FCAT ( State Exam) with our online students the virtual school ( largest in Florida) officials laughed out loud and said we are not like the "real" public schools in Florida we are not accountable to the TEST!!! How about that, they get taxpayers funds and they are not held accountable...sweet deal. As teachers and schools in Florida are under more and more scrutiny our Legislature is mandating that ALL students take at least one online class a year. It seems the playing field is NOT fair and the party in power wants to dismantle public education and send tax payers’ dollars to their friends in private enterprise?

December 22, 2012 at 1:33 a.m.
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