EXCERPTS from an article originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on April 9, 2018
(UPDATED, 7 a.m., April 10 with Idaho Vision High School’s status as an alternative school.)
The more than 6,000 students enrolled in Idaho’s virtual schools perform on an array of academic performance indicators, from standardized tests to high school graduation rates.
The online schools serve a variety of unique and at-risk students:
- Suspended or pregnant teens.
- Students who are bullied or who learn at varying rates.
- Students pursuing early careers in sports, music or the arts.
Families tied to the schools praise their online accessibility, which allows students the convenience of participating from home. Virtual educators defend the schools, arguing that lower outcomes stem largely from higher percentages of struggling learners, and that newly imposed state accountability measures don’t fully consider the schools’ unique challenges.
Here’s a look at Idaho’s virtual schools:
How virtual schools work
Students enroll in virtual schools through school districts and charter schools. The Idaho Public Charter School Commission (PCSC) governs 11 of Idaho’s 17 virtual schools, though overall digital enrollment through traditional school districts has increased in recent years.
PCSC schools account for 73 percent of virtual enrollment in Idaho, or about 4,400 students, with school districts enrolling the rest (about 1,600).
Once enrolled, students gain access to certified Idaho teachers who provide help and grade assignments remotely, via the internet. Parents help teach and ensure that students stay on task.
Idaho’s school funding formula, based on “average daily attendance,” allows school districts and charter schools to receive a full measure of state funds for online learners, even though these students don’t typically attend brick-and-morter schools. These state funds cover a range of costs, from teacher salaries to laptops to annual service fees for online curriculum providers.
Virtual school measures
Fourteen of Idaho’s 17 virtual schools performed below state averages on either all or most of five key performance indicators in 2016-17.
Here’s a comparison of averages:
Idaho Reading Indicator (reading test for students in grades K-3)
- All Idaho schools: 73 percent.
- Virtual schools: 63 percent.
Average proficiency on the ISAT (Idaho’s standardized test):
Leaders split over virtual school accountability
The PCSC acknowledged in its most recent annual performance report that virtual schools likely serve higher rates of “at-risk, and academically struggling students than the state as a whole.”
Still, low performance last year prompted the commission to impose improvement sanctions on six of seven virtual charters up for renewal. These schools, defined as either “remedial” or “critical,” must comply with “specific, written conditions for necessary improvement,” or run the risk of closing their doors.
The PCSC also adopted a new performance-accountability framework in May 2017, focused on performance outcomes like math proficiency and high school graduation rates.
Some virtual school leaders say the PCSC’s accountability framework and renewal conditions are a poor fit.
Monti Pittman, administrator at Idaho Technical Career Academy, said he is “concerned that the framework includes measures that are different from the minimum state requirements,” according to minutes from an April 13 PCSC board meeting held prior to the implementation of the renewal conditions and performance framework.
“The challenges we face are not fully recognized in the renewal condition and are not recognized at all in the Performance Certificate,” Edginton said.
Other school-choice leaders say extra accountability is part of the broader charter school movement. Bluum’s Ryan acknowledged the difficulties tied to online education, but didn’t give virtual schools a pass on their low marks.
“Any school that has struggled to perform for three or four straight years should face the possibility of closure,” Ryan said.
While Ryan agrees that virtual schools are an alternative to students who do not succeed in a traditional setting, he worries that too many parents see them as a fix-all. Ryan urged families to carefully consider the challenges tied to online learning.
Online learning requires a strong support system in the home, said Ryan, who is a trustee on IDEA’s school board. Without it, students won’t likely succeed.
Disclaimer: Idaho Education News and Bluum are funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.
Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information for this story.