Sunset Deadline for Online Schools

Feb 4, 2015

A bill to allow Iowa’s two fully online schools to continue operation cleared a hurdle in the House yesterday.    

The bill lifts the sunset for the schools and is renewing debate about virtual academies.     

Blake Eiler and his family live in Ankeny, but the 17-year old  is enrolled in the Iowa Connections Academy. The for-profit program operates under the umbrella of the CAM Community School District in southwest Iowa.

Blake's mom Jane Eiler says her son has Asperger syndrome and was struggling in school until he enrolled in the online program his freshman year.

“His grades turned around right away, he got accepted in the National Honor Society,” Eiler says. “I'm sure he would have graduated high school but now he's going to graduate with honors.”

Blake’s school and another virtual academy in the Clayton Ridge district in northeast Iowa enrolls roughly 700 Iowa students. Lawmakers are debating whether to let that continue, and some education advocates question whether students are getting the proper education online.

Amy Williamson at the Iowa Department of Education has been keeping tabs on the schools since 2012.

“The question we were asked that year,” Williamson says, “was are these operating as schools or as home school assistance programs.”

Williamson says the department concluded the virtual academies are operating as real schools. Classes are taught by licensed teachers, kids have to be in attendance a certain number of hours and she says student performance on standardized test is comparable to student scores of traditional schools.      

Students can enroll in the virtual academies from other districts and bring their state dollars with them.  That concerns brick and mortar schools. 

Margaret Buckton represents the Urban Education Network, a collation of districts in Iowa’s largest communities.

“The Urban Education Network in the past would have preferred to have the opportunity to offer this to their students without creating an environment of open enrollment and competition,” Buckton says.

Department of Education officials confirm they’ve received complaints from school administrators about how the private companies are marketing their programs, including running ads on television.    

A department study shows that as many as 30 percent of enrollees in the virtual schools drop out. Officials say it appears some home school  families try the online option but  find it  too restrictive, so they take their kids out.

Jane Eiler says she had no interest in home schooling whatsoever.

“I don't want to do a high school curriculum as a homeschool parent,” Eiler says. "I don't think I could do a good quality job of that.” 

Lawmakers question whether all the online students are being tested, and whether students are actually putting in the hours.

Action on the bill was delayed as Democrats on the House Education committee huddled in private. Democratic Rep. Kurt Hansen, a retired teacher from Fairfield, questions the data on student performance when the sample size is so small. 

“It takes 10 to 12 years in any educational program to see if the results are truly reflective,” Hansen says, “and we’ve not had that at this time.”   

So far online education in Iowa is limited to the two schools and enrollment is capped.

A bill last year would have allowed an unlimited number of online schools with wide open enrollment. Osage Republican Rep. Josh Byrnes managed last year’s bill and sent it back to the drawing board.

“There’s a lot of what ifs and we need a bill brought back to us that doesn't have those what ifs,” Byrnes says.

School advocates say they can probably back this year’s bill. Besides lifting the sunset for the two online schools, Spencer Republican Rep. Megan Jones says the bill makes it a little easier to get around enrollment caps.

“It would allow the DOE to waive the cap if there are siblings and the school district  attests they would be better served in an online education setting," Jones says. 

The bill also adds some new hurdles for the online schools to clear. They’ll have to verify enrollment and course completion as well as student progress. And they’ll have to include a ubiquitous public school tradition, the parent-teacher conference.