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.

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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